RELEASE: As School Starts, Gottheimer Announces “Stop School Hunger Strategy”

Protect School Breakfast & Lunch Threatened by Government Shutdown. 30 Million Kids Could Go Hungry Without School Breakfast and Lunch.

Sep 08, 2023
Press

BOGOTA, NJ — Today, September 8, 2023, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) joined with local educators, school administrators, education advocates, and local leaders at Bogota High School to sound the alarm on the devastating impact a government shutdown will have on our kids in school and announce his Stop School Hunger Strategy. If extremists in Congress shut the government down, it will cut investments for the federal school meals program that provides breakfast and lunch to millions of children who need them across the nation.

Gottheimer also announced that he helped the Bogota School District claw back from Washington nearly $150,000 dollars to improve the nutritional quality of their meals, modernize operations, and update and expand their kitchens.

In New Jersey, about 400,000 children receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, and nationwide, nearly 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program — 10.1 million more children than before the pandemic.

Gottheimer’s Stop School Hunger Strategy:

  • First, as Co-Chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Gottheimer is working to stop the extremists who want to shut the government down. Extremists want to declare war on a woman’s right to choose and risk feeding our children, our national security, and support for our veterans. 
  • Second, Gottheimer is fighting to pass the Universal School Meals Program Act — to provide breakfast and lunch to millions of children. It reduces the paperwork, cost, and bureaucracy of operating the free school lunch program, fights back against schools who, because of the fear of how it might look, don’t actually provide meals to kids who need it, and will ensure more hungry kids get fed. 
  • Third, Gottheimer is helping lead the Expanding Access to School Meals Act to allow any child who qualifies for reduced meals to receive them at no cost. It also expands the poverty threshold for free school lunch from 130 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. New Jersey has already taken these steps.
  • Lastly, Gottheimer is working to cut the red tape and streamline the process for parents trying to enroll their kids in school meals programs. He is helping lead the No Hungry Kids in Schools Act to have the State centralize and streamline the school meal program with less paperwork — and without collecting bureaucratic, hard to manage applications from individual households. Schools would automatically qualify based on the need determined by the State. Nationwide, the administrative costs of analyzing these tedious calculations and processing can cost school districts up to $100,000 a year.

Importance of school meals:

  • Three out of five public school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry.
  • Hunger in the classroom decreases a student’s ability to focus and their physical activity, and causes stomach aches, headaches, depression, and anxiety.
  • 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.
  • Students who eat breakfast and lunch have better vitamin and nutrient intake, healthier overall diets, less susceptibility to obesity.

A government shutdown will:

  • Freeze new investments for the federal school meals program, meals on wheels for seniors, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) for lower-income pregnant and nursing women, babies, and young children, and for SNAP to help lower-income families with their groceries.
  • Put at risk military pay, defense projects, support for veterans, seniors, and childcare.
  • Impact the economy, infrastructure projects, federal food inspections, the safety of our nation’s transportation, and will cost jobs, profits, and economic growth.

“Now, as you start your school year, I’m headed back to Washington in just a few days. My first homework assignment will be to help stop the extremists in Congress from shutting the government down. Not only would the government shutdown freeze new investments for things like infrastructure spending and meals on wheels for seniors, but it would also cut the dollars for the federal school meals program that provides breakfast and lunch to millions of children who would otherwise go hungry,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “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. We’re wasting time and money trying to figure out which school district qualifies, and which students are eligible. 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.”

“Thank you, Congressman, for being such a leader on these issues. We know that these educators are doing an amazing job educating children, but they’ll be the first to tell you if children are not well nourished, they cannot learn. To be schooled, you must be fueled. To be well-red, you must be well-fed. That’s why the Congressman’s push to have more access to school meals with less paperwork, less burden for the school district, and more nutrition for the kids is absolutely vital,” said Hunger Free America CEO Joel Berg.

Gottheimer was joined by Bergen County Education Association President Sue McBride, Uniserv Field Representative for Region 23 and 25 Carol Feinstein, Bogota Superintendent Damian Kennedy, Bogota High School Principal Dr. Jeannie Paz, Boys & Girls Clubs of Lower Bergen County Chief Executive Officer Joseph J. Licata, New Jersey School Boards Association’s immediate past President Irene LeFebvre, Hunger Free America CEO Joel Berg, Bogota School Board President Frank Miranda, and Bogota School Board Treasurer Jose Chavez.

Video of the announcement can be found here.

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

Gottheimer’s full remarks as prepared for delivery are below.

Good morning. It’s great to be here at Bogota High School. Their first day of school was yesterday and, while we still have thirteen days left in summer – it’s not over until it’s over. I want to wish all our students and educators across North Jersey a great school year. 

I also want to congratulate the Bogota Football team on their season opening 21 to 6 victory over Capital Prep. And a huge congrats to the Girls Volleyball team on their Group 1 four-peat last year — we’re all pulling for a five-peat!

Now, as you start your school year, I’m headed back to Washington in just a few days. 

My first homework assignment will be to help stop the extremists in Congress from shutting the government down. The country’s fiscal year ends at the end of September. If we don’t pass our budget and appropriate resources, as the Constitution requires us to do, then the government shuts down – putting everything from military pay and defense projects to support for veterans, seniors, and childcare at risk. It could have a devastating impact on our economy and people. The problem is that too many of my more extreme colleagues won’t put differences aside and sit down together to find a bipartisan solution. 

As Co-Chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — a group of 32 Democrats and 32 Republicans — I will do everything I can to find a way forward to avoid a shutdown. 

The Problem Solvers have led the way in the past — from preventing a default on our debt, to helping write and pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and historic gun safety legislation, to securing critical investments during the pandemic to help families and businesses. 

The last government shutdown started in December of 2018, and lasted 34 days, the longest in history. 

What’s not talked about enough is how a shutdown will have a devastating impact on our kids in school. Not only would the government shutdown freeze new investments for things like infrastructure spending and meals on wheels for seniors, but it would also cut the dollars for the federal school meals program that provides breakfast and lunch to millions of children who would otherwise go hungry. 

Making sure our kids have the fuel they need to be active participants in the classroom should be a bipartisan issue. It’s common sense. Not only is it the right thing to do for their health and wellness, but they are key to our long-term competitiveness as a nation.

That’s why I’m here today to announce my Stop School Hunger Strategy.

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. 

In fact, studies show that three out of five public school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry.

The results couldn’t be clearer: Hunger in the classroom decreases a student’s ability to focus and their physical activity. It causes 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.

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.

There are about 1,200 kids here in Bogota who qualify for school breakfast and lunch and about 400,000 receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch in New Jersey. Nationwide, nearly 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program –10.1 million more children than before the pandemic.

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. 

These children rely on these nutritious meals to get through the day without being hungry.

If the government shuts down, then no new federal investments can go to schools to provide meals. 

That means if the money runs out, every child who qualifies for school-provided meals won’t be fed or will receive less or lower quality food. Can you imagine millions of children sitting in classrooms hungry across the nation?

The effects don’t stop at schools. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, which is already experiencing funding shortfalls, would be in jeopardy, putting at risk the health of lower-income pregnant and nursing women as well as babies and young children. More than six million mothers and children rely on WIC – including more than 130,000 in Jersey. Additional investments for SNAP to help lower-income families with their groceries would pause, too. Can you imagine in the greatest country in the world that we will have children and babies going hungry every day? 

It’s a nationwide problem, and clearly, we’re not immune here in Jersey. Unfortunately, too many of the children in northern New Jersey are showing up at our schools with the tank reading empty. So, the question is – what can we do about it? 

First and foremost, we need to stop the extremists in the House who want to shut the government down. They want to include ideological provisions in the budget like declaring war on a woman’s right to choose. And they are willing to risk feeding our children, our national security, and support for our veterans in exchange. 

Second, I’m fighting to pass the Universal School Meals Program Act — to provide breakfast and lunch to millions of children. It’s the same way we did it during the pandemic. 

If a school has a certain percentage of children who qualify for the meals, then every kid should automatically get breakfast and lunch. It reduces the paperwork, cost and bureaucracy of operating the free school lunch program, fights back against schools who, because of the fear of how it might look, don’t actually provide meals to kids who need it, and, overall, will ensure more hungry kids get fed. During the pandemic, I fought tooth and nail for universal meals and to make sure every school in the Fifth District clawed back federal dollars to Jersey to help feed our children who needed it. And it worked – more kids who needed it got fed.

For those who don’t know, under the current system in New Jersey, if a school district has fewer than five percent of students below the federal threshold, they can but they are not required to participate in school provided lunch programs — leaving kids without meals. 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.

So, under the current red-tape-laced, bureaucratic system, though, there are many kids on the cusp of the federal threshold who would still be left to go hungry in school. 

It’s why I’m proud to have helped the Bogota School District claw back from Washington nearly $150,000 dollars to improve the nutritional quality of their meals, modernize operations, and update and expand their kitchens.

Second, I’m helping lead legislation in the House, the Expanding Access to School Meals Act, to allow any child who qualifies for reduced meals to receive them at no cost. New Jersey has already done this and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be a national priority. 

The legislation also expands the poverty threshold for free school lunch from 130 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which our State has already done as well.

As a quick aside, I want to applaud Speaker Craig Coughlin — New Jersey’s food security champion. No one has fought harder against food insecurity in the state than the Speaker.

Also, those in the state’s legislature in our area, including Senators Lagana, Johnson and Sarlo, and Assemblymembers Haider, Park, Swain, Tully, Calabrese and Schaer have been incredible leaders in making sure children and families who may be struggling have the resources they need.

Third, I’m working in Congress to cut the red tape and streamline the process for parents trying to enroll their kids in school meals programs.  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 may not know which forms to fill out and how to prove they qualify. Paperwork shouldn’t get in the way of feeding our children so they can succeed in school.

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 more of our hungry children. 

That’s why I am helping lead the No Hungry Kids in Schools Act to have the State centralize and streamline the school meal program with less paperwork — and without collecting bureaucratic, hard to manage applications from individual households. Schools would automatically qualify based on the need determined by the State. 

I mentioned this earlier, but in many school districts in better off communities, there is a stigma for kids who get free and reduced cost meals and those who don’t. I’ve seen this firsthand. Too often are kids embarrassed for needing a school lunch. The communities themselves sometimes don’t like to admit that they have children who qualify. It’s pathetic and I’ve had to fight superintendents in communities that are refusing to feed children who qualify and are hungry. 

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 their potential?

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. I will continue to go after superintendents who opt for the easy way out and avoid feeding kids who qualify and need food – it’s often the only meals they get every day. 

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 thousands of more Jersey 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 – and the steps I’m announcing today, and with what our state is already doing, I know that we can help solve this problem together. There is nothing red or blue about feeding our children and educating the workforce of the future – it’s why school breakfast and lunch has always been a bipartisan issue. I hope my extremist colleagues come to their senses on the budget and do the right thing. 

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, if we put the health of our kids first, I know our best days will always be ahead of us.

Thank you. God bless you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

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