If schools close for weeks, where will free meals be provided?
EWING — Among the still-unanswered questions connected to the prospect of long-term closures of school buildings is what that will mean for the half-million New Jersey students with incomes low enough to qualify for nutrition assistance.
State officials are working to secure federal permission to loosen the rules for how the free- and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches are distributed to three of every eight public school students who qualify — more than 513,000 in the 2018-19 school year.
Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said local and school officials recognize the importance of preventing “a lapse in food security in the event of a school closure.”
“In collaboration with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, we’re exploring every flexibility available from the United States Department of Agriculture for schools to continue providing meals,” Repollet said.
He said the options for alternate pick-up locations include food banks and nonprofit organizations.
“That food security piece is very important,” Repollet said.
Agriculture Secretary Doug Fisher said the plan will depend on whether the state gets an additional waiver of the program’s regular rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which he expects will happen.
The state already got a waiver that applies to 41 school districts in the Summer Food Service Program. It now wants another that would allow districts to serve meals under the National School Lunch Program in a non-school setting.
“And that will encompass all the free, reduced and paid children to get their feeding at a non-congregate site or other sites that they will be working on,” Fisher said. “But we have to get to clearance from the USDA, and we’re submitting that right away. We’re hopeful that we’ll have that. We expect to get it.”
“We want to make sure that there are sites for the children to be able to eat,” Fisher said.
In 160 school districts, more than half the students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches, and at least 10% of students qualify for the nutrition program in nearly 500 of the state’s 585 operating school districts.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.