New Jersey lawmakers have made considerable strides in increasing student access to school meals.

Starting off this new legislative session, they're now taking a closer look at the quality of the food that's actually handed out to New Jersey children during the school day.

The Senate Education Committee spent 90 minutes hearing from invited guests on nutritional guidelines in New Jersey and how best to get the right meals in front of children.

"One thing that we lose sight of in all this is that we are the Garden State, and we should be doing better as far as connecting our school lunch trays to the farm-rich industry that we have here," said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Mercer, chair of the committee. "Students oftentimes are only getting access to food in our school systems, and what is it that we can do to ensure that we're doing our best to provide them with a healthy meal?"

At the start of the hearing, Ruiz highlighted New Jersey's move to expand the number of schools where breakfast is served after the bell — so more students actually eat it — and a law signed this year that requires the state to cover the cost of a student's reduced-price lunch or breakfast that's not covered by federal dollars.

Ruiz has reintroduced a series of bills aimed at maintaining or improving nutritional standards at New Jersey schools.

One measure would require that schools follow more stringent breakfast and lunch nutrition standards adopted by the federal government in 2012. Some lawmakers fear that changes proposed by the Trump administration could result in schools adopting lower nutrition standards.

"The current administration now seems to feel that you can provide students with pizza and burgers and fries, and that will save money," said state. Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer. "I think we need to keep the fruits and vegetables in the school lunch program."

Another measure of Ruiz's would force school districts to employ at least one certified nutrition specialist, registered dietitian, or registered dietitian nutritionist.

Daniel Hoffman, professor of nutritional sciences at Rutgers University, said while school meals are a key vehicle towards preventing obesity, it should not be the overriding rationale for setting school food guidelines — food insecurity, he said, remains a major public health problem for about 300,000 children in New Jersey.

"There is a disconnect between what we offer our children and what they actually eat. Just because we provide nutritious foods does not necessarily mean that they will actually eat it," Hoffman added. "Our menus reside at the mercy of their moods, behaviors, attitudes, past experiences, even friends, and perhaps most importantly, not enough time to eat."

Michael Vrancik, governmental relations director for the New Jersey School Boards Association, told the legislative panel that school nutrition "is an educational issue."

"Obviously, well-nourished, well-fed kids are happy kids and that contributes to school climate — this becomes a social, emotional, school security issue, mental health issue," Vrancik said. "Our association has policies that go back to 1985 ... that stress the importance of educating students and their parents, as well as members of the community, about the benefits of nutrition and good nutritional practices."

In an ideal world, he said, all students would have free access to school lunch ... but those costs obviously have to be covered.

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