In a summer featuring a global pandemic, more than 9 million free meals were handed out by schools and community organizations to Garden State children who may have otherwise struggled to get their hands on nutritious food — during July 2020 alone.

According to a report released Thursday by Hunger Free New Jersey, the number of meals distributed in summer 2020 nearly tripled 2019's numbers, and the number of children reached increased twofold, through the use of federal child nutrition programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a large reason for the uptick, according to Adele LaTourette, director of the Englewood-based nonprofit — with a heightened awareness of the need to feed kids, many communities that had not done so in the past decided to participate in federal summer meal programs in 2020. At the same time, the U.S. government waived key rules — such as requiring congregate settings — which made it easier for schools, organizations and agencies to feed children.

The increase in meals and kids served is also linked to a state law signed in 2018, which requires participation among districts where at least 50% of the student body is eligible for free or low-cost school meals.

In July, the state reached 51% of children who receive free or low-cost school lunch during the school year, the report said — the national benchmark is 40%. Roughly 203,000 children were served throughout the state, a 183% increase over July 2019.

"The need was heightened during COVID, but this need is always there," LaTourette told New Jersey 101.5. "We have these hungry kids, we serve them during the school year, and yet during the summer those meals very frequently just drop away."

As the state works its way "back to normal," she said, the group urges local leaders to build on the programs they started or expanded in summer 2020.

Looking ahead, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture is seeking summer meal sponsors for summer 2021.

"In 2020, New Jersey local leaders and communities partnered with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture to provide a record number of meals to a record number of children," Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher said in a release. "We are continuously working to ensure that every single New Jersey child has enough food to eat throughout the year."

Sponsors receive federal reimbursement for each meal that's served. To learn more about participating, contact the Department of Agriculture at 609-292-4498.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

My kids just LOVING a snow day!