NJ’s summer-meal programs reach twice as many kids in 2020, battling COVID-19’s impact on families

With families struggling to put food on the table, state pushes schools to participate in federal summer-food programs — feeding 200,000 children on average day in July
Credit: USDAgov via Creative Commons CC-PDM-1.0
In order to reach more hungry families, some summer-meal programs are allowing parents to pick up food rather than requiring kids to eat it on site.

New Jersey schools and community organizations fed twice the number of children last summer than the year before, providing meals to many who may have gone hungry otherwise due to the pandemic’s effect on families and on typical summer children’s programs.

Recognizing those great needs, more communities participated in federal summer-meal programs than before. The waiver of some rules due to the pandemic and a new state law requiring some public school districts to participate in the summer-meals program also helped boost the number of children served on an average day last July to almost 204,000. That represents 51% of the children who receive free or reduced-price school lunches, compared with just 26% who got meals in July 2019, according to a new report from Hunger Free New Jersey. The national standard is 40% and last year was the first time New Jersey reached it.

The report shows that schools and organizations served more than 9 million meals to children last summer, almost 5.9 million more than in 2019, an increase of 183%.

“This is an amazing achievement and underscores how critical it is to leverage federal nutrition programs,’’ said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey. “We commend all the school and community leaders who went the extra mile to head off hunger for so many children last summer.”

Food insecurity on the rise

One of the impacts of the pandemic has been an increase in food insecurity. Businesses have had to curtail operations or close altogether, prompting layoffs that result in some having less money to feed their families. Food pantries reported greater demand and some saw long lines of people waiting for groceries. As last summer began, at least 540,000 New Jerseyans were unemployed.

There were similar needs across the nation, so the U.S Department of Agriculture, which oversees federal nutrition programs, made a number of changes. Expecting that summer recreation and camp programs — where many low-income children receive free summer meals — would not operate as usual, the USDA waived several rules. For instance, the department allowed meals to be served outside of group settings — delivered or picked up by parents without children being present — and permitted schools and organizations to serve all children for free, regardless of poverty level. Those changes made it easier to provide meals.

Some of more than 1,300 sites around the state served all three meals and snacks that could be picked up at the same time and eaten throughout the day. A number of meal providers teamed up with food pantries and food banks to provide food for adults in a family, as well, the report notes. The summer nutrition program only benefits children.

Extending coverage to more kids

Additionally, the state Department of Agriculture encouraged school districts not already participating in the Summer Food Service Program to get involved in another federal initiative, Seamless Summer Option. The program served on average more than 84,000 children a day who had not previously been covered.

“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,’’ said Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher.

The department is now accepting applications from schools, local government agencies and nonprofit organizations to be summer-meal sponsors this year.

Also taking effect last summer was a state law enacted in May 2018 that requires all school districts where at least half the students are eligible for school-year meals to sponsor a Summer Food Service Program. In 2019, 42 public school districts provided summer meals. Last summer, that number increased to 62.

While applauding the increases, the report urges districts and other organizations to continue to sponsor summer-meal programs and calls for a further expansion of these. It calls on the USDA to continue to provide flexibility in the way the programs operate so that more children can receive the assistance they need.

“The truth is, though, that tens of thousands of New Jersey children face hunger every summer, even during normal times,’’ said LaTourette. “As we work our way back to normal, we urge local leaders to recognize this sad fact and build on the programs they started or expanded last summer.’’

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