New Jersey Students Deserve Nutritious, Healthy School Meals

The numbers alone are staggering.

And then there are the heartbreaking photos.

Taken together, they are a perfect recipe for outrage – not just from these pages, we hope – but from our readers across The Garden State.

School lunches in New Jersey are crap.

Literally – and in too many cases.

Consider these statistics, which form the heart of a special report released this month by USA TODAY Network New Jersey and its partner, Paterson Press:

  • 1.3 million New Jersey students are enrolled in public schools
  • They attend over 2,500 schools across our state
  • The breakfasts and lunches they eat are largely planned, controlled and executed by 800 local entities called School Food Authorities.
  • And there are only 10 to 10 state Department of Agriculture employees who conduct on-site reviews of SFAs and their operations and activities.
  • The 10 inspectors must ensure that the SFAs comply with some 306 pages of federal documents that set standards for foods served to public school students across the country.

And – as is almost always the case with regulations that apply to the day-to-day operations of state government and local and regional school districts – there’s a lot of money at stake.

New Jersey schools, according to state budget records, are on track to receive up to $ 400 million in reimbursements that fund school lunches, $ 200 million that fund school-provided breakfasts, and An additional $ 100 million for millions of summer school programs – all from the Federal Department of Farm Allowances.

But as our report demonstrated, school lunches are the last arena in New Jersey where the stark differences between the haves and have-nots are nauseating:

Unity Charter School, a tuition-free public school that serves 240 students in Morris Township, serves food from Grow it Green Morristown, a non-profit organization that runs a sustainable agricultural garden. On the menu at Unity: Vegetarian breakfasts like Mexican tortilla lasagna and mozzarella-tomato-basil sandwiches.

Meanwhile, at Paterson Schools, which educate more than 25,000 students, social media posts have illustrated gruesome versions of school lunches that included sloppy chicken entrees and inedible Philly cheese steaks. In Newark, parents launched online petitions earlier this year in an attempt to coax education officials into tackling what they have called a nutrition crisis fueled by horribly bad food.

That well-heeled Morris County students are supported by locally grown produce while their Paterson peers face far worse from their lunch counters is overwhelming – and extremely unacceptable.

Equally distasteful is the reality in which the state’s agriculture ministry claims its 10 inspectors are enough to serve such a large population. The fact that these officials are backed by federal regulators only reinforces our rage – and our loathing.

Armando Vasquez, spokesman for the Federal Department of Agriculture, gave this limp response to an investigation by editors Rebecca King and Mary Ann Koruth and our colleague Joe Malinconico, editor of Paterson Press:

“The number of people a government agency employs to implement infant nutrition programs is a decision of the state. … States are required to employ a sufficient number of personnel to implement and supervise infant nutrition programs.

New Jersey students deserve better.

Special report:Pictures of raw school meals have gone viral. Who in New Jersey is responsible for serving healthy meals?

More coverage:From student gardens to tasty food, this NJ school lunch program makes the right choices

It’s more than good nutrition:Students need to eat well to learn, but schools need to do more than provide nutritious food

Change is clearly needed

To better satisfy the collective food of our students, it is clear that more monitoring and more funding are needed.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., the longtime Democrat who represents Paterson in the United States House of Representatives, was outraged earlier this fall after Paterson Press reported the horrific exit of some of Silk City’s school kitchens.

“If even an inferior meal is served to a child, it cannot be tolerated,” Pascrell said. “Congress has been very active this year putting nourishing and nutritious breakfasts directly into children’s stomachs.

Pascrell said the Agriculture Department is expected to receive more than $ 8 million to help with staffing and oversight during fiscal years 2022 and 2023 as part of the U.S. COVD-19 relief program.

“While more money is needed, my office has also called for close federal government oversight,” Pascrell said.

Pascrell said he had helped the Federal Agriculture Ministry provide “technical assistance and advice” to local officials to ensure “children do not receive such unacceptable meals.”

As a member of Congress, we applaud your outrage and encourage your resolve to right this wrong.

LuAnn Hughes, educator for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, also has some great ideas for improving school feeding.

Hughes regularly works with school districts and their cafeterias to improve food quality and reduce food waste.

“For school lunch to work, it has to taste good, it has to be beautiful. It has to be nutritionally balanced and it has to be the type of food that children like to eat,” she told our journalists.

Despite good efforts to make food more appealing to students, Hughes told us the bottom line is this: There just isn’t enough money to adequately fund the food that students really need.

These federal reimbursement rates that we have cited are simply not enough.

The nationally determined flat rate reimbursement rate for free meals is around $ 3.66 per meal for wealthier districts and $ 3.68 for poorer districts, according to the Federal Department of Agriculture. .

“It’s not a lot of money when you think about a dairy product, a fruit, a vegetable and whole grains. It’s very, very difficult, ”said Hughes. Some schools are taking advantage of a commodity program that the United States Department of Agriculture provides for free – a large list that includes frozen vegetables, canned foods, protein – to help increase their food budget, a she declared.

The fix

As is always the case with programs that depend on regulation and funding from multiple levels of government, there will be no quick fixes to getting better food on New Jersey school tables.

What can we do?

Here is our take on how to deal with the crisis under the radar:

  • Urge Congress to review district meal reimbursement rates and increase payments.
  • Urge lawmakers in Trenton to deploy new and greater resources to improve New Jersey’s regulatory reach. We need more than 10 inspectors in 2,500 schools to ensure quality.
  • Urge state and federal governments to encourage public-private partnerships like the one Morristown enjoys – the creative sourcing of local food needs at scale. And now.

We invite our readers to reach out to their legislators – and before throwing up – to encourage creative and novel approaches to better serve our students.

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