Petition for free school lunch in NJ regardless of parent(s) income

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Rays of Hope is a youth organization created for the purpose of engaging our youth in community service projects, activism and also to help change the culture of our government making it fair and just for all young people in the State of New Jersey. Our members consists of children between the ages of 8 and 18, who are residents of NJ and attend various school districts throughout NJ.  This past year our youth participated in various community service projects such as, feeding and clothing drives for the homeless, spending time with senior citizens, helping to build a park, donating books, prom dresses, and providing school supplies to youths in underprivileged areas. 

In a recent leadership development workshop, we asked our youth how many of them have witnessed other children and/or friends being denied lunch or being served an alternate meal because that child's parent was behind in making payments to the lunch account.  We also asked if they witnessed a lunch personnel disparaging kids or loudly telling kids that parents owe money, thereby, embarrassing that child.  We were heartbroken when most of them raised their hands to confirm that they had indeed personally witnessed this practice at their schools.

We also asked our youth to review their district lunch debt policy and once again we were heartbroken to find that in NJ most school district policies state that if a parent owes money the school is permitted to call social services and in some cases the police to do a wellness checkup because apparently, the school districts view this as abuse and neglect.  Most districts also have an "alternate meal plan" for those children whose parents fall behind in payments.  Think about that for a moment.  The school can call social services and the police and provide your child with a cheese sandwich as opposed to a hot meal, all while still charging the parent's account!  In other districts, the school is denying children the right to participate in school activities and sports.  Imagine for one moment being denied the right to go to Prom just because your parents fall behind in their lunch payments.  

The American Bar Association has defined “lunch shaming” as the overt identification and stigmatization of any student who does not have money to buy a school meal.   The purpose of lunch shaming is to embarrass a student and parents so that a school lunch debt is paid quickly, in turn reducing a school’s financial burden.   

The DCF Commissioner Beyer issued a statement stating clearly that “using referrals to a child protection agency as a threat to parents who have not or who cannot pay a student’s lunch bill is misuse and misrepresentation of the state agency charged with investigating.  NJ has a statute that clearly defines child abuse and neglect.  Living in poverty, owing money to the school or missing school-associated payments are not actions that in and of themselves qualify as child abuse or neglect.”

Our school districts are basically criminalizing poverty and shaming poor families who don’t qualify for the free lunch program.

School lunch is critical to a child's health and well-being especially to low-income students who in some cases may only have one good meal a day.  The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) conducted research which shows that a good school lunch reduces “food insecurity, obesity rates, and poor health”. 

Kids cannot learn if they are hungry.  Our Rays of Hope youth wanted to do something about this so we sat down as a group and wrote letters, cards and notes to Governor Murphy asking him to address this issue by pushing for legislative action to stop our school districts from enforcing these outrageous policies.  NJ is one of the top rated school districts in the nation. We are better than this!  We feel strongly that school lunches should be free to all kids regardless of income and we believe the Governor can make this happen!

Please join our Rays of Hope organization in this request by signing our petition today.