Being hungry makes it pretty difficult to learn. That's the simple fact behind efforts to provide healthier lunches to school children and reduced-price or free lunches and breakfasts to students from low-income families.

In New Jersey, meal programs have been expanding. This year, the Department of Agriculture says, 1,957 schools are providing breakfasts to about 255,000 students, a 15 percent increase in students over last year.

State lawmakers want to do more, and a package of bills working its way through the Legislature would expand school breakfast programs and establish an online clearinghouse to help get farm-fresh produce to local schools.

But one of the bills being considered, while well-intentioned, may actually make it easier for schools to deny meals to children.

It is a response to the negative publicity generated last year when the Willingboro School District announced it would no longer serve lunches to students with delinquent accounts. Cafeteria staff members were told to confiscate and throw away meals that children could not pay for. The district has since rescinded the


The bill, A1796, approved by the Assembly Women and Children Committee on Monday, requires that schools notify parents twice and wait at least three weeks before refusing to serve a student.

But while the bill's sponsors say it addresses the problem by preventing schools from suddenly cutting students off, children's health advocates argue that schools shouldn't be holding students responsible for their parents' debts and shouldn't be refusing to serve students at all.

Locally, South Jersey school officials say they do not stop serving children when their meal accounts are in the red, although they may substitute basic lunches such as cheese or peanut butter sandwiches or salads until the bill is paid.

We are sympathetic to school districts that have trouble getting some parents to pay for their children's meals. But lawmakers should take another look at this bill. In trying to address a single misguided policy, they may be making it easier for districts to let students go hungry. It would make more sense to prohibit this altogether, rather than creating a mechanism that merely delays it.

Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, was right when she told Assembly members, "Regardless of the delay, not feeding a child should not be an option."