ATLANTIC CITY — Known in her Westside neighborhood as Grandma Mack, the 55-year-old grandmother of 11 takes care of many of the children who live nearby. But probably the most important of those under Valarie Mack’s care is her 4-year-old grandson, Karter, who lives with her full-time.
Although Mack has raised several of her own children, she said AtlantiCare’s Summer Lunch and Learn program taught her so much about nutrition she had never considered.
“A lot of us grandparents need help; we really, truly need help,” Mack said. “I just appreciate it because at the end of the day I know kids get something to eat, plus they teach good stuff with the nutrition, salads. And a lot of the stuff doesn’t cost a whole lot of money.”
Advocates and health experts says summer meal programs are essential to helping ensure children have access to healthy food options when school is out of session. This year's summer meal program analysis by Hunger Free New Jersey reported a 15% increase in the number of summer meal program participants from 2017 to 2018.
Programs like the one run at AtlantiCare, which is operated in partnership with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, are reimbursed per meal served by the United States Department of Agriculture. Last year, its first, the program served 2,000 meals over a two-month period.
Laura Engelmann, community health and wellness manager for AtlantiCare, said the program has been hosting about 50 children a day and their families.
According to Engelmann, AtlantiCare’s program has been successful because it is unique meals are provided free of charge to parents and caregivers through the AtlantiCare Foundation, and there are activities included in the program.
“Last year, we participated in some physical activities,” Engelmann said. “This year, we’re really looking at all the subjects that children might be learning in the school year, so we have people coming out to do STEM activities, horticulture.”
On Wednesday, more than a dozen families gathered in the patio outside the AtlantiCare William L. Gormley HealthPlex near City Hall for a healthy meal and some educational engagement. On site was Marci Lutsky, a chef from Happy Heart Corner, who demonstrated how to make a black bean dip with vegetables. About a dozen children lined up before the blue table cloth where Lutsky was preparing the ingredients, and the children’s parents, siblings and grandparents gathered behind them.
As she chopped an onion and blended beans in a food processor, Lutsky engaged the crowd with cooking tips and ingredient insights like “limes don’t have seeds.”
Mack said aloud she never knew that, and others nodded, too.
Mack has learned so much about food through the program, including tips to help her grandson, who has developmental delays, like cutting back on soda and high-sugar foods.
“I love the fact that they teach us to eat stuff that we would never eat,” she said, mentioning zucchini, which she never tried before the program. “Where we going to buy the zucchini at? Then they teach us about them so even if I don’t get them, when I go to the supermarket I actually know what I’m getting because some of us don’t know all the vegetables because we’ve just never seen them.”
She likes the program because she feels that AtlantiCare cares about the outcome of the people who attend.
Mack’s sister, Tina Clinton, 52, also brings her grandchildren to the program, and said she often encourages others in the community to do so, too.
“It helps us,” Clinton said. “It keeps them off the streets. It keeps them positive.”
Jennifer Tornetta, spokeswoman for AtlantiCare, said Lunch and Learn is part of the overall mission of the Healthplex to serve the population through health education.
“One of the things we work very hard on in the Healthplex is we can give you the best care and we can diagnose you, but if we’re not giving you the tools … that’s not helping with what we’re seeing in the office,” Tornetta said.
The Summer Lunch and Learn is open to families with children from infants to 18 years old. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. with a boxed lunch followed by activities at 1401 Atlantic Ave. in Atlantic City.