RELEASE: Gottheimer Calls for Extension of School Breakfast and Lunch for All Students

School Meals for All in Need Expired as Children Start the New School Year. Fighting to Feed 10 Million Children in Need & End School Meal Stigma. Avoid Administrative Costs & Bureaucratic Red Tape Leaving Students Hungry.

 

Above: Gottheimer at Bergenfield High School today.

BERGENFIELD, NJ — Today, September 8, 2022, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer joined with local educators, school administrators, education advocates, and local leaders at Bergenfield High School to call on House and Senate leadership to extend federally-provided school breakfast and lunch for all students in the upcoming government budget vote. Taking this action will help ensure that no student goes through their school day without the meals they need to succeed. Nationwide, the extension of this critical program would help feed an estimated 10 million students in need.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) authority to grant waivers to provide school breakfast and lunch for all nationwide. Additionally, Congress extended school meals for all in the Keep Kids Fed Act through Summer 2022. Now, with the expiration of the Keep Kids Fed Act as the 2022-2023 school year begins, millions of children have now lost access to school provided meals.

Under the current system, in New Jersey, if a school district has fewer than five percent of students below the federal threshold, they are not required to participate in school provided lunch programs. If the school district has more than 20 percent of their students under the federal threshold, then they are required to provide both lunch and breakfast. However, under the current red-tape-laced bureaucratic system, there are many kids on the cusp of the federal threshold who would still go hungry in school. Additionally, if a school district does hit the federal threshold of students to have the ability to offer school provided meals, then families of four with less than $51,338 in annual household income are eligible for free and reduced school meals. But, the child of a family of four making $52,000 annually would not be eligible to receive school provided meals.

Nationwide, the administrative costs of analyzing these calculations and processing can cost school districts up to $100,000 a year — more than a billion dollars nationwide.

Studies show that three out of five school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry. Hunger in the classroom leads to a decreased ability to focus, decreased physical activity, stomach aches, headaches, depression, and anxiety.

“I’m here today to make sure that no child in New Jersey ever has to sit in a classroom, hungry, focused on how they might get their next meal, not on the textbook in front of them. In our upcoming government budget vote, it’s critical that we reinstate key parts of the Keeping Kids Fed Act that provided universal breakfast and lunch to millions of children in qualifying schools,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “We cannot continue to play these ridiculous and complicated games with the health and futures of our children. We’re wasting time and money trying to figure out which school district qualifies, and which students are eligible — all while knowing that there are children who need to be fed that aren’t being fed. These kids are suffering because of endless red tape.”

Gottheiemer continued, “I don’t think we should be using arbitrary statistics when it comes to the health and nutrition of our children. I don’t care if it’s one or 100 kids in a school who are eligible for free school lunches — the school should provide them. These rules are nonsensical.” 

“Congressman Gottheimer has an innate understanding of the link between students’ nutritional wellbeing and their level of readiness to be fully engaged in their educational experience,” said Bergen County Association President Sue McBride.“BCEA deeply appreciates Congressman Gottheimer spearheading this call to extend the universal meals program, in the best interests of students in Bergen County and throughout the nation.”

Gottheimer was joined today at Bergenfield High School by Bergen County Education Association President Sue McBride, Bergenfield Superintendent Dr. Christopher Tully, Bergenfield Mayor Arvin Amatorio, Bergenfield High School Assistant Principal Robert Ragasa, Bergenfield High School Principal James Fasano, Bergenfield Education Association President Anthony Rapetti, Bergenfield School Board President Dr. Joseph Amara, and local educators.

Last December, while fighting to make sure students in North Jersey are fed, Gottheimer urged every school district in North Jersey to utilize the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, or provide their reasoning for not participating and their plan to meet the nutritional needs of their students. 

Video of the announcement can be found here.

Below: Gottheimer with local educators, school administrators, education advocates, and local leaders at Bergenfield High School.

 

 

Gottheimer’s full remarks as prepared for delivery are below.
 
Good morning. It’s always good to be back at Bergenfield High School. Their first day of school was Tuesday and I want to wish all our students and educators across North Jersey good luck with their first week back in the classroom. Here’s to a great year. 
 
Now, although the first day of school is an exciting time, this year’s first day marks the end of the program that throughout the pandemic provided school breakfast and lunch to so many children across Northern New Jersey and nationwide. These children relied on these meals to get through the day without being hungry.
 
I’m here today to make sure that no child in New Jersey ever has to sit in a classroom, hungry, focused on how they might get their next meal, not on the textbook in front of them. In our upcoming government budget vote, it’s critical that we reinstate key parts of the Keeping Kids Fed Act that provided universal breakfast and lunch to millions of children in qualifying schools like this one. 
 
It will feed our children, avoid the massive administrative costs involved in the old program, and end the stigma around the school lunch program. Nationwide, the extension of this critical program will help feed an estimated 10 million students who need it and are left fending for themselves under the old system which was just reinstated.
 
Why does this matter? Too often children have to get through their day at school without the fuel they need to be active participants in the classroom. You can’t propel a rocket without fuel – the same goes for a growing student. They are rockets ready to take off to a successful life and career. But they won’t reach their dreams without fuel in the tank.
 
Unfortunately, too many of the children in northern New Jersey are showing up at our schools with the tank reading empty. It’s a nationwide problem and we’re not immune. 
 
In fact, studies show that three out of five public school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry.
 
The studies of results couldn’t be clearer: Hunger in the classroom leads to a decreased ability to focus, decreased physical activity, stomach aches, headaches, depression, and anxiety. And studies also show that students who skip breakfast generally make more errors, have slower memory recall, and are more likely to be absent, tardy, and to repeat a grade.
 
But, for those students who do eat breakfast and lunch, we see much better performance in the classroom, and, as a result, much better performance when they graduate. And, students who aren’t hungry have better vitamin and nutrient intake, healthier overall diets, and less susceptibility to obesity. A Tufts University study also showed elementary school students who eat breakfast listen better and have better spatial memory and short-term memory than students who skip breakfast.
 
Students who eat meals at school are also less likely to be hyperactive and have fewer behavioral and attention problems than their hungry peers.
 
So, while we can all agree that healthy meals are essential to our students’ success, there is a harsh reality: we have children in North Jersey who qualify for and depend on school provided meals, but will not be receiving them because of the existing program’s bureaucratic and arbitrary red tape. 
 
As I mentioned, during the pandemic, we tried something new – something that worked.  
The federal government allowed all students to receive school provided meals because of the serious economic situation — as long as their school district opted in. During the pandemic, I fought tooth and nail to make sure every school in the Fifth District took advantage of this and clawed back federal dollars to Jersey for school provided meals to help feed our children who needed it. 
 
Before the pandemic, there were more than six million meals provided to students in need across the Fifth District. During the pandemic, more than nine million meals were provided — a substantial increase, showing that we are capable of providing school meals for all. Last year alone, more than 200 million free meals were provided through these programs in New Jersey — that’s more than 1,100,000 every single day.
 
For those who don’t know, under the current system, which we just went back to, in New Jersey if a school district has less than five percent of students below the federal threshold, they are not required to participate in school provided lunch programs. If the school district has more than 20 percent of their students under the federal threshold, then they are required to provide both lunch and breakfast.
 
Under the current red-tape-laced, bureaucratic system, though, there are many kids on the cusp of the federal threshold who would still go hungry in school. And the program is very bureaucratic. 
 
If these rules weren’t complicated enough already, there’s more. 
 
If a school district does hit the federal threshold of students to have the ability to offer school provided meals, then the rules are as follows. Families of four with less than $51,338 in household income are eligible for free and reduced school meals. But now imagine a family of four making $52,000 a year. Their child would not be eligible to receive school provided meals. The Governor plans to raise this limit to $55,500 a year for a family of four, which I’m grateful for, but that simply isn't enough. 
 
And imagine the parents of children who are going to school for the first time who have no clue how to access school meals that their child is eligible for. They don’t know which forms to fill out and how to prove they qualify. 
 
And our schools have to hire people to run this bureaucracy – to figure out which families meet the threshold, get the families to fill out the proper forms, and get penalized if they provide a meal to the wrong child. Nationwide, the administrative costs of analyzing these tedious calculations and processing can cost school districts up to $100,000 a year – that’s more than a billion dollars nationwide — and, then, countless families whose children qualify for free meals just don’t sign up.  
 
These are dollars being spent on salaried positions, technology, and outreach, when instead they could be used to invest in improving our children’s education, while feeding so many more children at the same time. 
 
Plus, in many school districts in better off communities like this one, there is a stigma for kids who get free and reduced cost meals and those who don’t. The communities themselves don’t like to admit that they have children who qualify. 
 
We cannot continue to play these ridiculous and complicated games with the health and futures of our children. We’re wasting time and money trying to figure out which school district qualifies, and which students are eligible — all while knowing that there are children who need to be fed that aren’t being fed. These kids are suffering because of endless red tape. 
 
I don’t think we should be using arbitrary statistics when it comes to the health and nutrition of our children. I don’t care if it’s one or 100 kids in a school who are eligible for free school lunches — the school should provide them. These rules are nonsensical. 
 
With the tremendous benefits that science tells us eating breakfast provides for our children, shouldn’t the leaders in our schools be doing everything possible to make sure that no child is hungry in school? Shouldn’t our schools make sure that every child can achieve his or her potential?
 
I’m here today to call for at least a one-year extension of federal school provided meals for all students, so that every child who needs it gets breakfast and lunch. This will take a financial burden off of struggling parents and put an end to the bureaucracy and administrative costs, so that all of our kids can be healthy and perform at their highest levels in school.
 
As I mentioned, with provisions of the Keeping Kids Fed Act expiring at the start of school, millions of children have lost access to school-provided meals. Inaction in Congress, the partisan failure to extend the legislation, has turned this into the Keeping Kids Hungry Act. There is nothing partisan about feeding our children. This is something I know Democratic and Republican parents alike agree — and it’s key to our long-term competitiveness as a nation.  
 
I am urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to extend school provided meals to all qualifying schools in our upcoming government budget funding package. The nutritional needs and academic futures of our children depend on it. 
 
This will put an end to pre-pandemic policies which increase red tape and administrative costs for children, families, and school districts. It will help end the stigma that plagues many of our schools and makes children feel badly about themselves.   And, most importantly, it will help ensure that all children have the fuel they need to succeed in school.
 
This change will give every child the ability to qualify for school provided meals as long as their school district qualifies and opts into the federal school meal program. 
 
This will allow students to learn with a clear mind, healthy body, and have a better chance of a successful school day.
 
I’m sick and tired of hearing the constant excuses as to why we can’t feed our children and the wasted dollars on administrative costs figuring out if a child qualifies.
 
Providing school meals for all K-12 students is a proven, commonsense way to help children succeed, and it will cut costs for our families who are currently facing higher prices.
 
When the result would be hundreds more students in class with sharper minds, stronger bodies, and better chances of a successful school day – the excuse that providing these meals is too bureaucratically burdensome just doesn’t add up.
 
It’s absolutely ridiculous.
 
Our children, these students, and our communities’ futures deserve better.
 
So, I’m ringing the bell. I am eager to work together with you all to make sure that no North Jersey student goes hungry. Our door is always open.
 
New Jersey has some of the best schools in the country and providing our children the resources they deserve to succeed is critical. And, in the greatest country in the world, there’s no reason why we couldn’t or shouldn’t.
 
Thank you. God bless you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.
 

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