Feeding NJ kids: A new direction

After a successful 10-year campaign to feed NJ kids, Hunger Free New Jersey announces a new direction.

The New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign was launched in October 2011 when Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) released the first-ever state specific report about school breakfast participation. The report included local participation data, which amplified the very low student participation in this critical child nutrition program, especially in large urban districts where the need was intense.

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The report laid out the crux of the problem: The vast majority of New Jersey schools were serving breakfast before school when most students had not yet arrived. The solution was also clear and do-able: Serve breakfast during the first few minutes of the school day, typically in the classroom. This approach, known as Breakfast After the Bell, significantly increases student participation and ensures that every student has the opportunity to begin the school day with the nutrition they need to concentrate and learn.

Following the release of the report, ACNJ teamed up with Hunger Free New Jersey to convene a coalition of diverse partners, including major statewide education associations, health and anti-poverty advocates and national partners, including Food Research & Action Center and American Dairy Association Northeast.

At that time, New Jersey was nearly last in the nation for reaching less than one-third of low-income students. Over the next several years, this coalition worked together, driven by data and strategic communications, to convince school officials to change the way they serve breakfast. In just a few years, participation soared. By 2018, we had achieved a 65 percent increase in the number of students receiving breakfast – translating to about 100,000 more school children each day.

Over the years, the campaign expanded its efforts to include summer and afterschool meals. Those programs also saw encouraging increases. In 2020, New Jersey communities reached a record number of students, serving 59 percent of those who receive subsidized school meals, surpassing the campaign’s goal of reaching 40 percent of these children. Afterschool meals also were climbing pre-pandemic, with the state posting a 21 increase from 2016 to 2019.

During this time, we also worked together to pass critical legislation, including:

  • A bill that requires high-poverty schools – those with at least 70 percent of children eligible for free or low-cost school meals – to serve breakfast after the bell.
  • A bill that requires school districts with at least 50 percent low-income children to participate in the federal Summer Food Service Program. When the bill was signed into law, only about 35 New Jersey school districts acted as sponsors. Now, nearly all of these eligible districts are participating, making summer meals more accessible to thousands of children.
  • The elimination of reduced-price school meals, making these families eligible for free meals.

These incredible accomplishments, achieved through our strong partnerships, mean that tens of thousands of New Jersey children are now receiving more of the nutrition they need to grow, be healthy and succeed in school.

Different Times Call for Different Strategies

There is no denying the campaign’s success – and the need to continue expanding child nutrition programs in New Jersey. Yet, the past year and a half has crystallized the need to more closely integrate advocacy efforts across all federal nutrition programs and to link these programs to other nutritional supports, such as emergency food providers and efforts to improve access to healthier foods. While child nutrition programs are a critical piece of reducing hunger in the Garden State, it is also crucial that we knit these programs together to provide support for the entire family, from cradle to grave.

Government programs far too often operate in silos. As effective advocates, we need to model the fact that these programs should be administered more seamlessly. So, we believe it is time to reconfigure our strategy and to connect the child nutrition work with the broader work that Hunger Free New Jersey does each day. This does not mean that the partnerships forged over the past 10 years will end. Nor does it mean that we will abandon our collective efforts to expand child nutrition programs.

Instead, we will continue to engage you — our partners — as we pivot toward efforts that leverage the relationships between the various programs and the settings in which they are delivered.

What’s Next?

Several initiatives will be getting underway in the coming months. These include:

SNAP & School Children

We will be working with state and local officials to launch a pilot program to link families of children enrolled in school meal programs to SNAP. A process exists to enroll children in families receiving SNAP in the school meal programs. But, there is no similar process to enroll eligible families in SNAP.

The FY 2022 state budget allocated $600,000 to fund a pilot project in three districts to develop effective ways to enroll an estimated 215,000 children and their families in SNAP. HFNJ will assist with this initiative and will be engaging Food for Thought partners, especially our education and community members, to be part of this effort. The goal is to develop a model that can be used statewide to enroll these families in SNAP.

Linking Medicaid to Nutrition Assistance

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is conducting demonstration projects to allow states to use Medicaid data to directly qualify students for free school breakfast and lunch. Another effort seeks to use Medicaid data to certify families eligible for SNAP. New Jersey needs to participate in these efforts to connect Medicaid recipients with nutrition assistance.

Raising Awareness of Federal Nutrition Assistance

In partnership with emergency food providers and other coalition members, HFNJ will be expanding a statewide effort to raise awareness of all the nutrition programs, which began with our Pandemic EBT campaign. We will disseminate information to people who can benefit from these programs through a variety of partners and platforms. This will be an exciting opportunity for all coalition members to help expand participation in these critical programs.

A Shout out to all Our Food for Thought Partners

We are truly grateful for the incredible efforts of all New Jersey Food for Thought Coalition members. We never could have achieved the tremendous gains we did without your dedication and hard work. We look forward to continuing our relationship as we expand our lens and link more New Jersey residents with healthy food, every single day.

Learn more at Feeding NJ Kids.

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