Summer food programs trying to reach NJ’s hungry kids

A statistic from Feeding America shows New Jersey is projected to be fifth in the nation for childhood hunger during the pandemic. As the pandemic rages through the summer months, organizations already struggling to feed kids every summer say this year will be even harder.

“What we’re seeing with this pandemic, as we have seen with so many things, is that it’s highlighting and putting a spotlight on issues that were already there. Every summer we struggle to make sure that kids get fed when they’re not in school,” said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey.

The nonprofit Hunger Free New Jersey measures the reach and impact of meal programs. Its annual report, Food for Thought: The State of Summer Meals in New Jersey, showed that summer feeding programs had dropped 1% in 2019 from the year prior. That means New Jersey’s only reaching 26% of kids during the summertime who receive free or reduced lunch during the year. The national standard is 40%.

“What we have to really look at is the fact that food insecurity in New Jersey has increased dramatically. We have been working with food pantries and food banks across the state, and there are reports of numbers doubling, tripling,” LaTourette said.

The report called on school districts to continue their emergency meal delivery plans that started in March through the summer. That’s already required for districts where 50% or more of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

The report also pointed to the Summer Food Service Program that allows community organizations to deliver food in parks, at pools and in libraries. That’s what brother-sister duo Samuel and Esther Chong are doing. They saw the need in their Palisades Park community as local businesses started closing down.

“It was just really overwhelming, seeing everything get shut down so fast and seeing people not have such a basic necessity met, which is just having a meal, having food. And we remember when we were in school, there were a lot of kids on the meal programs. We’re thinking how are they going to get their meals now?” said Esther, co-founder of Community Dinner Table.

They started a nonprofit, Community Dinner Table, where they provide dinner five days a week. During the worst of the pandemic they were feeding 300 or more people a day. It’s now closer to 150, but many are families with kids.

Community Dinner Table was asked to join the Bergen County Food Security Task Force, which brings together a range of experts to streamline systems and share best practices.

“Really putting together this brain power at the table, and from everyone from our largest food suppliers to our corporate communities and our partners, our civic neighbors who are looking for ways that they can be impactful. There’s so much more that can be done; even decreasing stigma and encouraging people to get the help that they so desperately need. All of these are going to be goals of this task force,” said Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Zur.

“I believe with the knowledge and the experiences that a lot of these other foundations have, I’ll be able to further my agendas and I’ll be able to sustain what we created. Not just through a temporary COVID pandemic food bank, but actually have a program that this community needs and doesn’t have,” said Samuel, co-founder and director of Community Dinner Table.

To find a food service in your area, go to SummerFoodRocks.org.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.