BRIDGETON — Groups of teenagers walked up and down streets wearing matching green-and-white shirts throughout the summer.
They walked along the cracked sidewalks and uneven pavement in the heat, and zig-zagged between streets clutching fliers in the rain.
They weren’t selling anything or collecting money.
About 20 Bridgeton High School students were getting families to sign up children for summer feeding programs.
When school is out, families can struggle with reliable access to nutritious food for their children, also known as food insecurity. Organizers of the Bridgeton teen program said it got more children into summer feeding programs this year while encouraging leadership and hunger awareness among young people.
“It is successful because our word is getting out there and the children are coming, so I feel as though we are doing our job,” said Jacrue Davis, 15, of Bridgeton.
Children can get free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches through the state Department of Agriculture. But in the summer, many of those programs are limited or nonexistent.
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Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly said the city had just 9 percent of eligible children participate in summer feeding programs in previous years, even though Cumberland County as a whole has one of the highest food-insecurity rates among children in the state. It grew to 18 percent last summer, but he said that still left many possibly hungry children in the city.
The mayor said he thought participation looked like it was increasing this summer after seeing more children attend each of the feeding sites. He attributed part of the increase to the work high school students were doing through the new Bridgeton Youth: Helping to Feed, Learning to Lead program.
“Black students went to Hispanic neighborhoods, Hispanics went to white neighborhoods. They learned more about their community and the people here,” Kelly said.
The program was funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant given to Gateway Community Action Partnership in Bridgeton, and the teens got paid.
On a July afternoon, about 12 high school teens sat at tables in between small children while they ate sandwiches, fruit cups and milk for lunch at Bethany Grace Community Church on Pearl Street.
Josue Ruiz, 19, of Bridgeton, joked around with them. His friend and fellow program teen Dan Cruz, 15, of Bridgeton, said he immediately took the opportunity to work with children in the summer and help families with food.
When classes end in June, so do free meals provided to eligible schoolchildren.
“When we first started, we figured out that during the summer, many parents waste about $300 on food, so we’re almost like an angel for them,” Cruz said. “We’re helping them out because sometimes the parents are not there to feed them in the morning and afternoon.”
Teens spent time with kids, helped feed them breakfast and lunch at several sites in the city and played games with them, like Thumbs Up, Seven Up.
The teens mapped out sections of the city and covered areas in groups of two or three students to knock on doors.
Davis and Taviaus Wilson, 17, of Bridgeton, knocked on the door of a white duplex, announcing they were part of the Bridgeton teen feeding program. After no answer, Davis left program fliers inside the screen door and moved on to the next house.
Meanwhile, Leslie Ann Huerta, of Bridgeton, spoke to a woman in Spanish in the doorframe of her home while two small children came to see who was calling.
“There are a lot of people here in the community who speak Spanish, so I can tell them about the program and how we offer free meals and translate the information for them,” she said.
Wilson just recently started his senior year of high school. Even though he didn’t know all the Bridgeton program teens last year, he now recognizes more familiar faces in the halls between classes.
The program was different from anything he had done before, he said.
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“I feel as though it taught me a lesson about how many people need help with feeding in the summertime,” he said. “It also made me grow as person, too, and to learn about the people in my community.”