It was James Cooper's daughter who gave him the idea of starting a summer food program for low-income families. As a teacher in Englewood, Bergen County, she would tell him how many students did not get meals at home, and would really struggle if they missed breakfast.
While those children did get meals at school, they might spend the summer far more hungry.
Last year, Cooper organized a non-profit group called Let Us Eat, Please which provided boxes of food every two weeks in the summer to families in which the children were eligible for the federal free or reduced-fee meal program at school. The group started in Ventnor and is expanding to Somers Point and Egg Harbor City this year.
Cooper, who attended the food distributions last summer in Ventnor, said he was overwhelmed by the gratitude of the families.
"People would take the bus to come get the food," he said, recalling a parent he drove home so he wouldn't have to walk the several blocks to the bus stop carrying the heavy box of food.
"He wanted to give us a tip to thank us," Cooper said.
A founding partner in the Cooper Levenson law firm in Atlantic City, Cooper has recruited friends and other agencies to help make the effort work. Steering committee members also include Cookie Till of Steve and Cookie's restaurant in Margate, Amanda McGowan of the United Way, Ellen Gregory, Director of Development for Egg Harbor Township schools, Debbie Brancato, senior program coordinator with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office in Northfield, and former Congress-man and Ambassador William J. Hughes. County and local officials have also endorsed the program.
McGowan, Director of Community Initiatives for the United Way, said Let Us Eat, Please helps bridge the gap over the summer when students do not get meals in school.
"What happens to these children during the summer?" she said. "There are so many in the free meal program."
Till is involved with farmers and community gardens and said she would like to include produce in the packages families get, and even get recipients involved in the gardens.
"This is getting food to people who need it, but I'd also like to teach people how to be more self-sufficient," she said. "This has a lot of potential."
Gregory said Cooper is an old friend, so she initially got involved to help him. But she would like to add Egg Harbor Township schools and is looking for grants to help support and expand the program, which has applied for non-profit 501c3 status.
Cooper said the group targeted smaller towns with high rates of low-income families that do not have other summer programs that would provide meals to students. In Egg Harbor City, about 80 percent of students are eligible for the meal program. Somers Point and Ventnor are each at about 60 percent.
The pre-packaged boxes of non-perishable food will be purchased from the Community Food Bank for $7 per box. Cooper estimates about $35,000 to $45,000 will be needed this year and he has already contributed $6,000 himself. He also hopes to be able to supplement the boxes with fresh produce.
Volunteers are also needed to help distribute the boxes. Cooper's ultimate goal is to expand through Atlantic County and into Cape May County.
"You know when people are willing to stand in line to get food that they need it," Cooper said. "Those of us who eat regularly should be willing to help. No child should ever go hungry."
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