Summer leaves thousands of NJ children hungry, report shows
School is out for the summer, but for tens of thousands of children who eat free or reduced-price meals at school, they lack healthy access to food during the summer, according to a new report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey and the NJ Food for Thought Campaign.
In the 2014-2015 school year, 419,000 children in New Jersey received free or reduced-price school lunch and yet, the state's summer meals program reached only 19 percent of them. The National Food Research and Action Center recommends that states serve at least 40 percent of these low income children. If the Garden State expanded summer meals to reach that goal, communities and school districts could bring in an additional $6.7 million dollars each year.
"Hunger doesn't stop when school closes," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. "We need to do better at ensuring that all New Jersey children have the nutrition they need to grow and be healthy during the summer months."
According to the report, 67 New Jersey school districts with high concentrations of low income children offer no summer meals.
"Awareness is the first step and knowing there is help available. It's important to partner with agencies that are providing summer programs to provide sites to actually serve the meals and to partner with the communities which have been successful at it," Zalkind said. "You just have to be creative and identify where kids are and where we can reach them with meals. Linking to programs during the summer is probably the most successful approach."
Perth Amboy is one town that has been very successful at providing summer meals to children.
"In 2012, we were recognized as a national model program by the United States Department of Agriculture for distributing record-high lunches to the children and teens of Perth Amboy," Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz said in a press release Wednesday. "We have continued to significantly increase our nutritious meal distribution to more than 60,000 children in 2014 in 38 sites throughout the city."
While providing summer meals can be a challenge when it comes to start-up paperwork, meeting stringent federal meal service, accounting and program operation requirements and building programs that attract a consistent number of children each day during the summer months, these challenges can be met, according to Zalkind.
The report also made the following recommendations:
- Team up to provide summer meals;
- Improve coordination;
- Implement innovative strategies to ensure high participation;
- Support changes to federal law - The Summer Meals Act, S-613, would make it easier for sites to serve meals, expand the program outside the summer months and allow sponsors to serve a maximum of three rather than two meals a day.