Summer is one of the toughest times of the year for children who struggle for consistent access to good, nutritious food. With school out, students can’t count on federally funded free- and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch. That often leaves them with cheap fast foods or forces them do without.
Luckily, say anti-hunger advocates, more than 1,000 places in New Jersey participate in a federal nutrition program meant to plug this gap.
The Summer Food Service Program, which is administered by the state Department of Agriculture for the federal Food and Nutrition Service, kicked off this month. It provides free meals and snacks to children who qualify for their schools free- and reduced-cost lunch program.
Sponsors, including municipal recreation departments, school districts, and food pantries, furnish food at facilities primarily in low-income areas and are reimbursed by the federal government for food and administrative costs. There were 100 sponsors in 2014, according to the state.
Anti-hunger advocates praise the program, but believe it can be improved — especially with it coming up for reauthorization in the fall. They said changes need to be made at the federal level to make it easier for sponsors and sites to participate and for alternative approaches to be put in place.
Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, calls the summer nutrition program a “continuum of service” and says it helps mitigate the rise in need during the summer.
“It is a program that is needed but we have to figure out the best way to provide it,” she said.
Among the changes that should be considered, she said, are not requiring students to participate in camp programs and instead use a electronic-benefits transfer card to allow them to bring food home, or to make it easier for sponsors and sites to qualify for the program.
Diane Riley, director of advocacy for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in Hillside, agrees.
“I think, in general, it is a tough program because you have to have kids go on site to eat,” she said. Unlike school, summer camp and recreation programs are not mandatory, so “you have to have some kind of program for kids to show up to.”
Those suggestions are in line with ones being made by national groups like the Food Research & Action Center and Feeding America. The national groups say the goal should be to increase participation rates from 16.4 percent nationally to at least 40 percent. According to a June report from the Food Research & Action Center in Washington, it’s possible to expand the program’s reach to another 4.7 million children nationally.
In New Jersey, such an expansion could more than double participation to 167,600.
FRAC found that 81,140 children in New Jersey participated in the summer program per day in 2014, or about one-fifth of those eligible; 419,000 children participated in the school-lunch program the same year.
“We are always working to increase the number of students reached through this program,” said Lynn Richmond, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture. “The efforts we’ve made this year, once we get the final list of sponsors, we think will show an increase in number of sites and children served daily.”
Numbers for 2015 were not available, but according to the FRAC report, New Jersey increased the number of sponsors from 96 in 2013 to 100 in 2014, but saw the number of participating sites drop from 1,038 to 1,020.