JERSEY CITY — The city’s public schools could close out 2021 by wiping students’ lunch debt clean for the new year, if the issue is taken up by the Board of Education this week.

While lunches this school year have been provided free of charge, under federal pandemic relief efforts, the Jersey City Board of Education could on Thursday vote by resolution to “zero out” previous years’ of outstanding balances, according to Board of Education President Mussab Ali.

As of December, about 78% of the public school district’s students participate in the statewide free/reduced lunch program, Ali confirmed to New Jersey 101.5 on Monday.

He did not have figures as to how many students currently have outstanding balances for school meals from the previous school year.

There are roughly 29,000 students across 39 schools in Jersey City for the 2021-2022 year.

The idea of "lunch shaming" at schools made headlines two years ago, when Cherry Hill Public Schools adopted a plan to withhold extracurricular activities, such as prom attendance, for students with an outstanding balance.

The district drew national criticism, as it also declined private offers to pay off outstanding debt, and state lawmakers took up the issue.

In May 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law the Hunger Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, which seeks to prevent school districts from denial of meals or public identification measures, known as “lunch shaming,” against students who have school lunch debt.

It also requires districts to annually provide all parents and/or guardians with the information and forms necessary to maximize participation in programs.

“No child deserves to be shamed over school lunch debt. I commend the Legislature for taking decisive action to protect New Jersey’s students from the stigma and punishment of lunch shaming,” Murphy said at the time.

Up to 12 million children nationwide are living in households where they may not always have enough to eat during the pandemic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture when it announced the extended meals relief program back in April, through the end of June 2022.

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