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New Statute Requires Schools to Provide Meal Distribution or Meal Vouchers during COVID-19 Closures to Students Eligible for Free & Reduced Price Lunches

By on March 25, 2020 in Legislation with 1 Comment

Editor: Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq.

On Friday, March 20, 2020, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a new bill, A-3840, to ensure the continuation of meal distribution to some of New Jersey’s most at-risk students as the State provides support to help local communities work through the COVID-19 pandemic.  The statute, now P.L. 2020, c. 6, requires local school districts to provide for meal distribution or a meal voucher program during the period of school closure due to the COVID-19 epidemic for those students who are eligible to receive free and reduced price lunches.  The act takes effect immediately.

Under the new law, school districts that receive a written directive from either the New Jersey Department of Health or the heath officer of their jurisdiction directing them to implement a school closure during the COVID-19 epidemic, as all New Jersey school districts have, are required to implement a meal distribution program for students eligible for free and reduced price lunches.  The statute directs school districts to identify one or more meal distribution sites that are within walking distance and easily accessible to the students.  Districts should now be collaborating with county and municipal government officials to identify appropriate distribution sites, if they are not already doing so.  Meal distribution sites may include faith-based locations, community centers such as YMCAs, and other locations where summer meals are available.  For school districts with high density housing, the statute explicitly includes an obligation to “make every effort to identify a school meal distribution site in that housing area.”

School districts also have an affirmative obligation to identify eligible students for whom meal distribution sites are not within walking distance.  In the case of those students, the district must distribute school meals to either the student’s residence or bus stop along established bus routes, provided that the student’s parent or guardian is present at the stop for distribution.  Up to three school days’ worth of food per delivery may be provided through bus delivery in these cases.  A district may use its own busses, or it may contract with outside vendors for transportation to provide meal distribution.  The act explicitly excludes such contracts from the provisions of the Public School Contracts Law, to ensure schools are able to act swiftly and are not constrained by public bidding.

Right now, some districts that are able to provide for all meal distribution through sites that are within walking distance are planning for meal pick-up once or twice a week, sometimes providing up to five days’ worth of meals at the distribution site to minimize person-to-person contact and continue social distancing.  The statute’s limitation on only allowing up to three days of meal distribution “per delivery” appears to apply only to districts that are implementing the program through delivery along bus routes, and does not appear to limit those districts that are capable of fully implementing through distribution sites within walking distance.

If a school district is unable to provide school meals pursuant to the above provisions of the statute, then the statute provides that the district must establish a food voucher system for students who are eligible for free and reduced price lunches.  The voucher system must be developed in accordance with criteria that will be promulgated by the Commissioner of Education in consultation with the Commissioner of Human Services, in order to provide the families of eligible students with funds to enable such students “to access nutritious food at food retail stores.”

Finally, the new statute provides that any costs incurred by local school districts as a result of their implementation of the act, which are not reimbursed by the federal government, shall be borne by the State.  The State is directed to maximize waiver flexibilities being provided by the federal government to address the loss of meals for low-income children due to COVID-19 related school closures. 

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Cameron R. Morgan

About the Author

About the Author:

Mr. Morgan has served the public school districts of the State of New Jersey in the specialized area of school law, representing boards of education in all aspects of their legal needs, with a focus on general counsel services, civil litigation, special education, administrative law, collective negotiations, labor and employment, and appellate practice. He has served as Board Solicitor to dozens of school districts, guiding district administrators through the diverse range of issues affecting the public schools, from personnel matters, tenure cases, and the range of issues that frequently arise at public board meetings, to student disciplinary matters, residency disputes, and homelessness issues, to complex matters involving the budgetary process or First Amendment rights.

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There is 1 Brilliant Comment

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  1. Avatar Catherine Jenisch says:

    Do you have any additional information on how the food voucher distribution process will occur? Looking for guidance.
    Thank you.

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