School-Lunch Policy on the Menu as Assembly Panel Gets Back to Work

John Mooney | September 12, 2014 | Education
Legislative committee looks at ways to accommodate kids with vegan or vegetarian diets

The Legislature will soon get back to work on a range of significant education bills, ranging from charter schools to teacher preparation, but yesterday it started out by tackling an unexpected topic: school lunch.

As the Assembly education committee held its first hearings since the summer, it took up four relatively routine bills covering matters including school-bus driver training and reserve accounts for certain federal aid.

But there was considerable interest and testimony regarding a bill that would require middle schools and high schools to set up “food services advisory committees” – with half of the membership comprised of students — to address students concerns about the breakfasts and lunches they are served each day.

Much has changed in the last decade when it comes to school food, with new federal and state nutrition requirements — some of which are more popular than others with the students eating the food.

The bill in question is specifically aimed at students who are vegetarian or vegan, said the primary sponsor, giving them a way to press their school districts’ food services to provide more varied dietary options.

“We are seeing more and more students who are growing up vegan or vegetarian,” said state Assemblyman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), the prime sponsor. “We are just asking schools to look at the menus and how to adapt them for these children.”

Lampitt said the bill came out a conversation with a friend’s daughter who asked cafeteria workers in her district for a vegetarian option and was told to eat potato chips.

“That should never happen,” said Lampitt, who herself oversees food services at the University of Pennsylvania as its director of business services. “We should be about providing students the food that fuels their minds and helps provide them the energy for the day.”

The girl, Wall Township High School senior Brooke Ferraro, testified yesterday before the committee and said her encounter with the school was a sobering experience.

“I have tried to meet with the school in trying to figure out options … and they denied me and told me to eat chips and other unhealthy options,” said Ferraro, whose mother is a prominent lobbyist in the Statehouse. “The point of being vegan is not to eat chips and other unhealthy options for your body.”

“I found no leniency or willingness to help people through my school,” she said.

The bill drew the scrutiny of school district officials and spurred a slew of proposed amendments that would ease the responsibility of food services. One issue was whether the bill’s guidelines should be mandatory. Another question was whether many schools are already providing such vegetarian options and offering opportunities for student input.

Nonetheless, the bill won unanimous support of the Assembly committee, and will move to the full Assembly for a vote. A companion bill in the Senate has yet to be filed.

“This is really a baby step, asking middle and high schools to create an advisory committee,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), the committee’s chairman. “It is a first step to creating awareness.”

This is also just the beginning of what is sure to be a busy fall for the Legislature on the education front.

After months, if not years, of discussion, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) has filed a bill to rewrite the state’s charter school law to create a new review and monitoring process for the alternative schools.

In addition, the state’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools is to hold a hearing next Tuesday on the Christie administration’s controversial caps on superintendent salaries, which are set to expire at the end of next year.

And the Senate is expected to once again take up a bill, vetoed this summer by Gov. Chris Christie, that would extend the much-debated Urban Hope Act and its provisions for opening up new charter networks in Camden.

Christie actually issued a conditional veto of some aspects of the legislation, and Senate leaders have said they would likely vote on the revised bill.