YMCA fills the void for hungry children missing school lunches

This is an installment of “Hunger in NJ,” a series produced by NJTV News and NJ Spotlight on food insecurity, a condition facing thousands of families in New Jersey, often forcing them to choose between paying the bills and putting enough food on the table.

Denise Walls has five grandchildren who usually get breakfast and lunch through their schools’ meal program. With schools closed, they’re missing those meals.

“You don’t realize how much the school’s food program impacts a family until they’re home all day with you,” she said.

Walls is one of thousands who are now depending on the Capital YMCA in Trenton to fill that gap.

“I swing by the park, I pick up the lunches, pick up the breakfasts for them and deliver them to the kids. It helps my daughters a lot, a whole lot,” she said.

Sam Frisby, the CEO of the Capital Area YMCA, said the Y was already providing meals to families in the evening through their after school programs. When those were cancelled, they immediately transitioned to a daytime feeding program for the hungry families in the Trenton area. It took off.

“We realized that as soon as the schools closed down that week, that most of our children eat lunch in school. And in this particular city, there are about 15,000 school-aged children. They’re at 85% free and reduced lunch,” Frisby said.  “We never thought that it was going to be this large. We were serving probably about 600 to 700 meals a night in after school programs. We’re currently serving a little over 2,000 meals a day here. So it’s a huge need that we recognize that the families in this community really need and we wanted to make sure we filled it.”

Danielle Otero shared her experience.

“We were getting free lunches and breakfasts for the kids through the Board of Education, and unfortunately, we have spent a lot of money supplementing what they need. They’re home all day, they’re quarantined inside the home. Our food budget definitely has gone up and sacrifices do have to be made to be made in order to feed your children. I definitely appreciate that the food service program here in Trenton is definitely working out for the kids,” said

The YMCA is set up in 14 sites throughout the Trenton region. They’re all places that were already used for their summer feeding program .

“We had been doing this before this pandemic even started. And so we’re the Y. This is what we do,” said site coordinator Khadijah McQueen. “Hunger shouldn’t be something that families should have to worry about, so as long as the need is here, we’re going to offer food.”

“I live in the neighborhood and I come through here and get lunches for the people that live in my house and a couple of kids next door. And I wanted to let them know what a great boon it’s been to the kids and to the families that they’re feeding,” said food recipient Leslie Lauts.

“I thank God every day, every day, grateful for this program,” Walls said.

The Y will be here at least through August, serving 2,100 meals a day across its 14 sites. If schools reopen in September, they’ll go back to feeding the community in schools. If not, they’re here for the long haul.

Support for “Hunger in NJ” has been provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.