Sailing through the New Jersey Legislature, even quicker than advocates could have imagined, is a series of bills designed to expand student access to meals both during the school year and summer months.

More than half a million Garden State students are eligible for free or low-cost meals. And while the state has rules in place that require certain schools provide breakfast or lunch, hundreds of thousands of students are reportedly still missing out on a nutritious meal to start the day.

"I think the entire package of bills is very exciting, and aimed at making sure hungry children get meals in schools — the meals they're entitled to," Cecilia Zalkind, president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, told New Jersey 101.5.

Under the most significant legislation in the package, schools where at least 70 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced-price meals would be required to establish a program that serves breakfast after the bell, rather than before the official school day starts.

“Getting to school early enough to eat breakfast can be difficult for some students. This should not be their only option,” Democratic Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, a sponsor of the legislative package, said in a news release. “This simple change in schedule would allow more students to participate in the breakfast program so they can perform better at school.”

Since the launch of their "breakfast after the bell" campaign in 2011, ACNJ has seen an additional 105,000 students get their hands on a meal to start each day. The state ranked 46th for breakfast participation in 2011, and ranks 19th today.

But in the group's latest analysis of the school breakfast program, New Jersey registered a 4 percent drop in the share of low-income students being fed.

According to Zalkind, about 500 schools would fit the "70 percent or more" standard of the breakfast program legislation. Currently, she said, 118,000 students in these schools are missing out on breakfast. This proposal would ensure they're delivered a meal — the cost of which is reimbursed by the federal government.

"You don't often get to work on something as a child advocate that not only doesn't cost the state a dime, but brings more money into the state," she said.

This and three other bills were approved by the full Senate and an Assembly committee in March.

Through the second measure, school districts in which 50 percent or more of enrolled students are eligible for discounted meals would be required to become a sponsor of the federal Summer Food Service Program.

Also funded by the federal government, the program ensures low-income children continue to receive meals when school is not in session.

“Many parents depend on the breakfast and lunch programs to help feed their children. Maintaining the same level of meals during the summer can be a struggle for these families,” Lampitt said. “This program would help fill the summer meal gap at no additional cost to school districts.”

According to the state Department of Agriculture, more than 1,300 sites offered food to children during summer 2017.

A third bill would require a report from school districts, to the DOA and Department of Education, in which there is at least one eligible school not taking advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision. The CEP allows the highest-poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost, to all students, without collecting individual applications.

Under the final measure, districts would be required to report the number of students who've been denied breakfast or lunch because the student is behind on his/her "bill."

After parents are notified twice of payment due for meals, public schools are allowed to cut children off.

"I think this bill enables the Department of Agriculture to take a look at how frequently that's happening, where it's happening," Zalkind said.

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