LOWER TOWNSHIP - It's not reading, writing or arithmetic, but feeding the hungry may be just as valuable a lesson for local elementary school children.
Teacher Helen Vile's fifth-grade class on Wednesday packed bags of food for 528 needy families in the school district. Working in a garage behind the Carl T. Mitnick School, 23 fifth-graders and a group of volunteers from the Cape May Kiwanis Club packaged corn, beans, peanut butter, soup, crackers, pudding, spaghetti and meatballs, and other canned goods.
"It's one thing to hear about people in need, but you can't understand anywhere near as much unless you do something. They're happy to do it and understand why they're doing it," Vile said of her students.
Some of those bags of food will be delivered to the families of the children packing the bags. The list of families comes from those students qualifying for free lunch at the school. The district also serves breakfast, but interim Superintendent Joseph Cirrinicione said he worries about the students getting dinner.
Five years ago, Cirrinicione created the Lower Township Elementary Schools Children's Monthly Dinner Program. The deliveries are made before long holiday weekends, such as the upcoming President's Weekend, because the students won't be getting breakfast and lunch at school for several days.
The program originated when a student was caught rummaging through the trash for food. Although he got free breakfast and lunch, the boy said he was looking for food to bring home.
"He said, ‘My dad is also hungry.' I saw a need and went to the staff," Cirrinicione said.
The district has about 1,900 students, 800 of which qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches due to their socioeconomic status. Cirrinicione said he would like to expand the program to cover more students, but he does not have enough money.
"I could use some more help. I can only feed 500, and I have 800 families," Cirrinicione said.
The program is funded not by the school but by donations from the community. School bus drivers deliver the food to needy families using their private vehicles on their own time. All funds are audited. Cirrinicione said "every penny" donated - $103,853 since the program began with 200 families - goes directly to buying food.
The food - two meals for a family of four - is delivered in January, February, March and April, when Cirrinicione said it is needed most.
"This is a tough time for many families. Our school district, in cooperation with local churches and the Police Department, do major food drives for Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, our people are obviously hungry during the winter months when seasonal work is nonexistent and unemployment benefits run out," Cirrinicione said.
"Our whole thing is helping children in the community. We think this is great because it gets the kids involved in helping others," said Jim Waldie, president of the Cape May Kiwanis Club.
The food is purchased in bulk at ShopRite, which also donates to the effort. School staff contributes to the operation, either in time, money or both. One benefactor gave $5,000, enough for an entire delivery.
The goal is to deliver a simple but nutritious meal.
"It's not gourmet, but it's staple food. If I have extra money, I throw a ham in for Easter. The kids are eating. That's all I care about," Cirrinicione said.
Contact Richard Degener:
If you want to help
Make checks payable to the Lower Township Education Fund and send to: Lower Township Elementary School District, 834 Seashore Road, Cape May, NJ 08204.