Following the controversy surrounding unpaid breakfast and lunch meals, legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Joann Downey to address practices employed by New Jersey schools concerning this debt was advanced unanimously by a full Assembly vote of 79-0 on Monday.
The bill (A-1630/1631) provides when a school meal bill is in arrears, a student’s parent or guardian would be notified and given a period of 10 school days to pay. Prior to notification, school districts would need to exhaust all options and methods to directly certify students for free or reduce priced meal programs and to provide application documentation to families.
The bill further clarifies that no part of law requires a school district to impose restrictions on school meals or activities for a student whose bill is in arrears. Rather, that they provide adequate notice to parents or guardians ahead of taking any action. It also prohibits schools from trying to collect unpaid meal fees directly from students.
A recent national school nutrition report found that three in four school districts had unpaid school meal debt. Responding to its own meal debt issues, Cherry Hill school district in Camden County proposed a policy last year to provide alternate ‘cold’ meals for outstanding balances of over $10, and no meals for students with debt over $20.
“Providing a child with the nutrition they need to learn, play, and grow is critical if we hope to successfully fight hunger throughout all local communities in the State,” said Downey (D-Monmouth). “It remains a huge concern that children in schools may not be getting meals simply because of a lack of awareness about meal programs, and even more so because of shaming practices around unpaid meal bills.”
The bill now heads to the Senate for further consideration.