New Jersey lawmakers want to make reduced-price lunches free for the state's schoolchildren.

Legislation introduced by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, would have the state spend $4.5 million to fill the gap left by federal subsidies for reduced-price lunches.

The lawmakers say the cost of reduced-price breakfast and lunch can still be financially difficult for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

"For many children around the state, the meals they receive in school may be their only reliable source of food each day," Ruiz said.

In the annual School Breakfast Scorecard, the Garden State dropped from 19th to 21st when looking at the ratio of low-income children participating in school breakfast to low-income children participating in school lunch. While New Jersey's rate for the 2017-2018 school year is slightly higher than the national average, it was slightly down from a year before.

Coughlin said there is a gap between what the federal government pays and what the students' meals may be, so they are trying to address that concern.

The federal government reimburses at a rate that is consistent across the United States but it does not take into account the cost of living. Here in New Jersey, free or reduced breakfast and lunch in public schools are more expensive than in other states.

Coughlin said the bill is designed to make sure all students who need it, are able to get the meals they need, by funding the gap.

Under the bill, no public school student who is eligible for reduced-price breakfast and lunch would be required to pay for his or her meal.

Eating breakfast and lunch daily are important for a child's ability to do well in school.

"Study after study have shown that it can improve their concentration, the student is more alert, they have better memories and it helps them advance their skills," said Coughlin.

A new report from Hunger Free New Jersey found that after-school suppers are a growing option for children in need. Director Adele LaTourette said between 2016 and 2019, there was a 34% increase in the number of school children in the state taking advantage of after-school suppers.

The report said nearly 24,000 children in the state receive a meal each day in the after-school programs run by schools, community groups and local governments.

Coughlin said there are about 280,000 children in New Jersey who face food insecurity each day.
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