New Jersey ranks 12th in the nation in the percentage of eligible children who received a free lunch last summer, according to a report released Tuesday.
The state improved its performance over 2015, moving up two spots from 14th, according to the annual report from the national Food Research and Action Center released Tuesday.
The report found nationally, for the first time since 2011, participation in the free lunch program had decreased slightly, based on the July count. About three million children across the country received meals.
The data for New Jersey show on average in July 2016, almost 81,000 eligible children received a free meal, up 2.3 percent from 79,000 in July 2015.
About 19 percent of all eligible children participated in New Jersey, which is based on the number of children enrolled in the federal free school meal program. FRAC has set a national goal of 40 percent summer participation.
Meal costs are subsidized by the National School Lunch Program. New Jersey would get an extra $6.7 million if it could reach 40 percent.
New Jersey had huge increases in the number of lunches served in June and August in 2016, indicating more programs were starting earlier and operating longer through the summer.
In June 2015, only 811 total lunches were served statewide, compared with 9,483 lunches in June 2016, a 1,000 percent increase. August saw an almost 33 percent increase, from almost 394,000 lunches to almost 523,000 lunches.
July had the largest participation, with more than 1.13 million meals served in 2016, a 2 percent decrease from 1.16 million meals in July 2015.
Nancy Parello, communications and project manager for the NJ Food for Thought campaign, said efforts to raise awareness have worked.
She cited churches in Atlantic City which last year ran programs in August after the public school programs had ended.
“There is a growing recognition that there needs to be feeding from the end of school in June to the beginning of school in September,” Parello said.
The number of New Jersey sites offering meals increased from 1,112 in 2015 to 1,351 in 2016.
Both the state Senate and Assembly have passed a bill to create the Nourishing Young Minds Initiative Fund that would provide small grants through the Department of Agriculture to promote and set up breakfast in school and summer meal programs. That bill must still be signed by Gov. Chris Christie to become law.
Parello said summer programs are more challenging because they operate for such a short time, and unlike school, children are not required to attend.
She said sites that also run a camp or academic program are more successful because they typically know how many children will attend each day. Open sites, such as a park or community center, are more unpredictable.
“They never know how many kids will come each day,” she said.
Sites do not have to operate all summer, and Parello said weeklong camps and Bible schools have also helped fill the gap in August when school programs have ended.
“Even a week in June or August helps,” she said.