By Brenda Flanagan
When classes end and the last school bus leaves, most kids head happily for the summer playground. But educators in Perth Amboy say they looked at empty lunchrooms and didn’t sleep well because two-thirds of students here depended on free school lunches.
“Because we worry during the summer what’s gonna happen with our kids? Whether they’re gonna eat or not,” said James Flynn Elementary School Vice Principal Noemi Natal-Villagas.
They’re eating now. The city’s summer meal program started small — serving 11,000 lunches in 2008. This season they expect to serve 100,000 meals — all provided by the USDA. Mayor Wilma Diaz claims, coordination is what makes this happen.
“So we partner up with many of the non-profit organizations — the churches in Perth Amboy, anyone who has a point of contact and can provide some type of summer camp,” Diaz said.
It’s called, “serving in place.” So every ham sandwich — with its accompanying banana, grape juice and milk — gets counted and the feds cover all costs, even reimburse staff salaries.
“No child should be left hungry in any municipality,” Diaz said.
But they are. A new survey by Advocates for Children of New Jersey reports, out of 419,000 kids who qualified for free or reduced meals last year, only 19 percent got summertime meals — just one in five. Sixty-seven school districts offered no summer meals at all — even though the federal government makes meals available for free.
“It doesn’t cost anything. It actually brings more federal money into the state. More communities need to offer this program. You’re talking about two months where kids are going without meals,” said Advocates for Children of New Jersey Executive Director Cecilia Zalkind.
Zalkind says if New Jersey districts could boost its participation to 40 percent, it’d draw down another $6.7 million in federal funds. The state’s offered information and support, but towns don’t take the extra steps.
“I think there’s a perception that it’s harder to do, but we have seen communities like Perth Amboy that have stepped up and are really doing this in an exciting way. And the key, I think is feeding kids where they are. They’re in a program — link it to food,” Zalkind said.
Advocates say they’ll be reaching out to those towns and districts that don’t have summer meal programs to help them figure out how to feed their kids all year round.