Local attorney James Cooper started a nonprofit group called Let Us Eat, Please in 2012 to help low-income families during the summer when their children would not get free meals in school.
He got the idea from his daughter, then a teacher in Englewood, Bergen County, who told him about students who did not get balanced meals at home and struggled in school when hungry.
The program started small in Ventnor but expanded each year.
This year it will serve almost 800 families, who every two weeks pick up a box of food at their child’s school, including sites in Lower Township, Egg Harbor Township, Galloway Township, Egg Harbor City, Somers Point, and the Atlantic County Special Services School and Institute of Technology.
“It’s almost doubled, and we could probably still do twice the number if we could raise more money,” said attorney Ken Calemmo, who coordinates the project. The group’s primary fund-raiser is a “Captain’s Table” event at the Atlantic City Boat Show.
Galloway Township is a large municipality on the northern border of Atlantic County.
The food is purchased in bulk at a discount through the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s branch in Egg Harbor Township. Volunteers pack the 30-pound boxes, which the food bank delivers every two weeks in July and August to the schools. This year the group purchased $70,000 worth of food, Calemmo said.
“It’s not an easy thing to raise the money, but each year it seems we need more,” he said.
Boxes typically contain cereal, pasta, pancake mix and syrup, plus canned goods such as tuna, soups, peanut butter and jelly. For the last couple of years some fresh produce has been added. A recent shipment had a bag of potatoes and a bag of oranges for each family.
Stephen Santiago, a program associate with Rutgers University’s NJ SNAP-ED program, attends the pickups and shares information on nutrition and recipes.
“They like the recipes,” he said. “And they really like getting fresh fruits and vegetables. Last year there were pineapples and they were such a hit. It really changed up the atmosphere.”
Joy Hooper, food service director at the Special Services School, said more than 200 families were interested in the program, but only about half were able to get to the school to pick up the food. She and officials at other participating schools said they try to be flexible and give parents an extra day if they can’t make it.
Marilyn Moore, food service director in Galloway Township, said her staff embraced the program, collecting book bags and even picking up sneakers and clothing for children.
Jack Griffith, principal at the Egg Harbor City Community School, said volunteers come in to help distribute the boxes.
“One young man comes every time,” Griffith said. “His family had gotten help, and now he comes to help us.”