Report finds NJ is leaving money on the table for school meal programs

Only a quarter of New Jersey’s children who are eligible for meals after school are getting the food they need. New Jersey is slowly rolling out feeding programs, but Briana Vannozzi reports that the state is still failing to take advantage of all the federal dollars available to help families still Chasing the Dream.

A layer of plastic is pulled back from a hot sandwich tray. The first bite sinks in, satisfying hungry bellies.

At the Edward Kilpatrick Elementary School in Paterson, a couple dozen students are seated in a cafeteria. Not for lunch, but an after school supper. For some, it’s the only hot meal they’ll get once the last school bell rings.

“With the kids being here, having a meal, feeling safe here, it takes away some of the anxiety that they may have,” said Principal Derrick Hoff.

A national report from the Food Research & Action Center found the number of New Jersey children receiving after school meals through two federal programs is inching upward, with the average number of students receiving supper meals up more than 13 percent from October 2016 to October 2017.

“The Food for Thought Campaign as well as other groups has really been focused on increasing access after school and the state department. Really it’s taken a bit, but I think we’ve been very successful. I think we’re pleased with the growth, and I think we’re excited to see how much further it can go,” Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey.

“We actually started our sponsorship back in the 2016 to 2017 school year. We started with a pilot of two schools, serving approximately 100 children. In 2017 to 2018 school year we grew the after school dinner program to 13 schools, approximately 500 kids. And now 2018 to 2019 school year, we’re up to 23 schools, over 1,400 children,” Dave Buchholtz, director of food services for Paterson Public Schools.

Paterson is considered the gold standard for the program by most anti-hunger advocates. In order to claim the meals, the district is required to provide an after school program. Studies show three square meals make a big difference in academic success. Petra Banikova is in charge of creating the kid-friendly, but healthy, menus.

“This is the age when children are like a sponge, so it’s very important for them to observe not only education, but look at the meals and being able to recognize this is good for me,” Banikova said.

“While they’re eating we teach them social skills, which seems to be critically important. Without those social skills, they can become incredibly disruptive in the classroom,” said Michael Goldberg.

Goldberg’s company Education Plus is contracted by the school to provide the staff and services for after school suppers. He gets paid through federal reimbursement which alleviates the financial burden for local school boards. Still, the state isn’t doing all it can to help those in need.

“We’re only reaching 4 percent of the children receiving free or reduced-price lunches, so we’d really like to improve that. FRAC’s recommendation, the national partner, is to get it up to 15 percent. And if we were to do that, we’d bring in $3 million more in federal monies,” said LaTourette.

Advocates are trying to get the state involved so more school districts will get on board, and in turn, serve more students.

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.