Kids, pencils, books are back – but not everyone’s lunch | Editorial

It’s back in New Jersey schools with little mask and vax controversy that began in the first two educational years.

It’s a real breath of fresh air.

However, there is one more hangover from the post-COVID-19 lockdown problem that has yet to be addressed. This is what our favorite non-entitlement should be: a free lunch for every student every day. Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation on Friday that estimated about 26,000 students statewide would be eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school under the traditional subsidy program for low-income families. The biggest credit goes to Parliament Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), who introduced the bill and made anti-hunger measures a priority.

Trouble is, despite being popular, signing only affects pre-2019 qualification levels. That’s still a step backwards from what was temporarily in effect during the pandemic’s prime time. New Jersey and other states have federal exemptions that allow all schools to provide lunch and, in some cases, breakfast for all children. This is driven by a mechanism to maintain vital nutrition programs while school buildings are closed. This allows the district and other community partners to provide free meals at home or distribute at drive-throughs, but the program will remain in effect when most students return to in-person classes in the 2021-2022 school year.

Now, the federal immunity has disappeared. Congress lacked wisdom and refused to update it. States that want to make meals a regular part of school activities are on their own, without additional financial aid from the federal government. Even the minor Murphy-approved expansion would require $19 million from the state coffers; it raises the household income cap for the Garden State’s subsidized lunch/breakfast from 185 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

It’s hard to justify those in Congress who have thwarted updating the entire plan. If you send your child to a private nursery all day, and that place has never fed rugby mice, you are neglecting the child. No one will leave their dog in the kennel if the daily rate refuses to find her kibble in the proper amount. SPCA will be called. It needs to be repeated: the school has sufficient supervision time for our children each day, so food needs to be provided without any additional cost.

Bringing a local flavor to this discussion is Cherry Hill School’s decision three years ago to pay off parents’ lunch debt by forcing delinquent families’ children to eat tuna sandwiches — or to eat nothing at all. The plan was widely mocked and never took effect. Updating schools now requires all but the poorest households to pay, which will bring back “lunch shaming” in all its forms. It’s not the district’s fault that they have to try to collect these balances, as long as they do so in a way that doesn’t stigmatize the kids. Why let it take a chance, though? If the federal nutrition plan would pay for meals for everyone who signed up, no questions asked, there would be no debt to collect.

Only the federal government has the ability to pay for these costs, not to mention the leverage to store and distribute surplus food that is available at deep discounts. Oddly, President Joe Biden thinks the federal government can provide $10,000 to $20,000 of college debt relief per student, even for dual-income families earning $250,000 a year, but doesn’t make a big push for this broad-based Nutritional Assistance. Note that $55,000 per year for a family of four is the cut-off point for any school meal subsidies under New Jersey’s newly expanded eligibility.

It’s also odd that the state Senate didn’t act in June on a resolution urging Congress to pass a “Universal School Meal Plan for 2021,” which would have served the need. This school year may be moot as congressional Republicans block consideration of federal legislation. But it’s never too late to show Washington’s support for the concept.

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