By Erin Delmore
For a lot of kids, the end of the school year means no more pencils, no more books and maybe a summer vacation’s in store. But for a startling number of New Jersey students, the end of the academic year means no more free and reduced priced lunch. It’s the only meal the state’s poorest kids can count on, day after day.
“They’re bused to school during the school year, so they’re kind of, to say, a captive audience during the school year. In the summer, they’re not. So a lot of places have to rely on the parents or family friends or whatever to bring them to areas where the meals are,” said USDA Food and Nutrition Service Regional Director of Special Nutrition Programs James Harmon.
Harmon and Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher visited a summer camp in Paterson, where 100 or so kids, ages 5 to 14, sweat it out and sport their soccer skills.
“Some kids have breakfast and lunch. Sometimes we give them two or three lunches and some kids take them home,” said Camp Director Alfredo Serrano of Paterson Recreation.
Here in Paterson, only 21 percent of eligible kids receive free meals over the summer, and that’s higher than the state average.
New Jersey’s meal programs reach around 18 percent of the more than 400,000 eligible kids during the summer months, according to the Food Research and Action Center, placing us 14th among the 50 states.
“We have the ability to feed way more numbers of students during the summer than we do. We make every effort to make those linkages to get sponsors to have people understand what it takes to be a sponsor and once we do that and do those hurdles that when participation goes up. So it’s not the resources. It’s about connecting the dots,” Fisher said.
“We’ve been trying to come up with other scenarios such as what we’re calling nontraditional sites such as farmers’ markets, WIC clinics, libraries, urban and rural housing developments. We’re trying to bring the food where the children are. Not asking them to come someplace else to get their food,” Harmon said.
The state hosts more than 1,000 sites offering free meals to kids in the summer.
“If you were to just text the word ‘FOOD’ to 877-877, you’d find the site close to where you live anywhere in New Jersey. Sometimes it’s just that the parents or the guardians or the grandparents or whoever’s raising them don’t know that it’s available when it is,” Fisher said.
The surprising feedback from today’s lunch: more water is what these kids would like. Chocolate milk isn’t quenching the thirst on this 90 degree day.
Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform 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.