Fewer New Jersey children received after-school suppers in 2020. This is the second year in a row that the state has headed in the wrong direction in serving low-income students, according to a report from The Food Research and Action Center.

New Jersey now ranks 27th nationwide for serving afterschool suppers, reaching only 3% of low-income kids who receive free or low-cost school lunch.

Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, said many afterschool programs were closed in October 2020, so that does take the COVID-19 pandemic into account.

However, there are multiple problems and barriers that need to be looked at from all sides. She said this is a program that saw a loss or a lack of participation.

In October 2020, New Jersey communities fed an average of 13,371 children after-school suppers, according to the FRAC report. That's down from 19,000 in 2019, a nearly 30% drop.

LaTourette said schools were overwhelmed with everything that was happening regarding the pandemic. Community-based organizations were working remotely and a lot of the afterschool programs had been suspended. She said all of these things need to be looked at in-depth.

She said these are startling numbers and the state needs to make sure this program feeds as many children as it possibly can.

The fact that more communities are not maximizing child participation in this program is a real loss, not just in terms of feeding hungry kids, but also leaving federal dollars on the table, she said.

"If we had met the FRAC goal of serving supper to at least 15% of low-income students, we would be feeding 66,000 children each day," said LaTourette.

"Clearly there is something other states are doing better than we can. So let's look at what other states are doing. How are they implementing the program? How are they training the providers? What's their messaging to providers? What's the providers' messaging to families? We have to look at it from all levels to try and maximize participation," LaTourette said.

She said this 30% drop means New Jersey is missing out on $3.5 million in federal reimbursements in October 2020 alone and fed an additional 66,000 children each day.

"That's a lot of money, but more importantly, a lot of kids who wouldn't be going hungry," she said.

LaTourette also added that the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, which administers the program on a state level, should take steps to understand the decline, while also stepping up efforts to engage more organizations to serve afterschool snacks and suppers during the pandemic.

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