Free school meals expand to ‘middle-income families’ in New Jersey

Service workers pre-package hundreds of free school lunches in plastic bags. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Service workers pre-package hundreds of free school lunches in plastic bags. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law on Friday that requires New Jersey schools to provide free breakfasts and lunches to students from working- and middle-class families.

Murphy said the program would reduce food insecurity and offer healthy meals to more families.

“[The laws] will ensure that our kids are more fully prepared to excel in their studies so they can excel in their lives, and through it all, they will make life in New Jersey a little bit more affordable for countless working and middle-class families,” said Murphy at a signing event in South Amboy.

The state defines “middle-income family” as any family with an annual household income between 186% and 199% of the federal poverty level.

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Murphy also signed a law that requires the state to launch a public awareness campaign educating families about their options.

“[The laws] will ensure that our kids are more fully prepared to excel in their studies so they can excel in their lives, and through it all, they will make life in New Jersey a little bit more affordable for countless working and middle-class families,” said Murphy at a signing event in South Amboy.

New Jersey is home to about 650,000 people living with food insecurity, including 180,000 kids (7% and 9% of the general and child population, respectively), according to Community FoodBank of New Jersey.

Previously, New Jersey’s laws mirrored federal statutes, which only require schools to offer free and low-cost meals to low-income families.

Murphy stated that the pandemic hampered many families’ ability to afford high-quality foods.

“Of the many lessons we have learned over the course of the COVID pandemic,” Murphy said, “is that access to healthy meals can become a fragile thing, particularly…overnight.”

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“Expanding the right to a free school lunch isn’t just the right thing to do educationally. It’s the right thing morally,” he said.

The new law requires the government to send money to each school district, as deemed necessary, to reimburse the costs associated with the district’s provision of free meals to middle-income students who are federally ineligible for such meals under the National School Lunch Program or federal School Breakfast Program, according to a statement on the Legislature’s website.

A pandemic-related federal program that provided free lunch for all students, regardless of income, ended in June after two years.

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