Summer meals on the rise

More children are receiving summer meals, helping combat childhood hunger, according to a new report by Hunger Free New Jersey.

New Jersey communities served up summer meals to more than 103,000 children on an average day in July 2018 through two federal summer meals programs, according to the report, Food for Thought: The State of Summer Meals in New Jersey.

That represents a 38 percent increase since July 2015, the report found. As a result, federal meal reimbursements rose to $12.7 million – a 71 percent increase since 2015.

“This is tremendous progress and means that many more children who rely on school meals will have a hunger-free summer,’’ said Adele LaTourette, director, Hunger Free New Jersey, which leads the child nutrition campaign.

She attributes the progress to a concerted effort by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign, and it many partners, to recruit more summer meal sponsors and sites and expand awareness of the program.

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture continues to recruit sites to participate in the Summer Food Service Program this summer.

“We encourage schools, municipal government and community organizations to participate in this essential child nutrition program to combat summertime hunger and help kids return to school in September healthy and ready to learn,’’ LaTourette said, adding interested parties should contact the New Jersey Department of Agriculture at (609) 292-4498.

Despite this progress, the national Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) recommends that states reach 40 percent of low-income children who eat lunch at school, compared to New Jersey’s 26 percent participation rate. If New Jersey achieved that goal, communities would collect an estimated $5.2 million more in federal dollars each year to feed hungry children during the summer, according to FRAC’sHunger Doesn’t Take A Vacation: Summer Meals Status Report, 2018.

In the summer, family budgets are stretched tight when many parents must pay extra for child care and summer camps. At the same time, children do not have access to school meals, meaning that thousands of New Jersey children face hunger in the summer.

To fight summertime hunger, the United States Department of Agriculture provides funding to local governments, school districts and community organizations to serve summer meals to children. These meals are typically served at places where children congregate – parks, pools, libraries, camps and recreation programs, among other sites.

In July 2018, 127 summer meals sponsors provided meals at 1,357 sites throughout New Jersey, according to the report.

In addition to providing free, healthy meals, these programs also offer an opportunity for children 18 years and younger to play together, engage in enrichment activities, hone their academic skills and be better prepared when they return to school in September.

Last year, New Jersey passed a law that requires any school district with at least half of its students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals to participate in the Summer Food Service Program.

Districts were allowed to request a waiver for this summer. Of the 127 districts affected by the mandate, 104 requested waivers. All but four were granted. By 2020, all districts affected by the law must participate as either a site or a sponsor.

Three school districts – Jamesburg, Clifton and Stem Civic Charter School — opted to become new sponsors, while 20 others will team with an existing sponsor to operate a site at one or more schools in their districts this summer, state officials said.

“We expect to see even greater growth in 2020 as this new law takes hold and expands summer meals to children across New Jersey,’’ LaTourette said. “We look forward to continuing to work with local and state leaders to ensure that every child has healthy food to eat, every single day.’’

To learn more, contact the New Jersey New Jersey Department of Agriculture at 609-292-4498 or visit the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign’s summer meals page.

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