When the school year ends next month, so will a major source of meals for children from low-income families — free breakfast and lunch programs at schools.
Now, efforts are gearing up throughout South Jersey to reduce the number of child-ren who might go hungry over the summer.
Nonprofit groups are working with the state Department of Agriculture to recruit new sponsors and meal sites for this summer by making the process as easy as possible. The meals are subsidized by the National Free Lunch Program.
Among the largest sponsors in South Jersey is the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch in Egg Harbor Township, which already has registered at least 24 feeding sites in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties and is still accepting applications.
“Any place where kids will be and don’t have access to summer meals, we can be there,” said food bank Vice President Richard Uniacke. “If you have a location, and you have kids, we want to talk to you.”
The statewide effort to provide free breakfast and lunch during June, July and August has been gaining momentum; it served almost 84,000 children per day in July last summer. This was a 6 percent increase over the previous summer. But that represents a less than 20 percent of the almost 430,000 eligible children statewide, including more than 25,000 in Atlantic County alone.
The summer program is different from those offered in schools. Targeted towns with large numbers of low-income families automatically qualify to feed all children. Parents do not have to register.
The Community Food Bank has contracted with Wheat Road Cold Cuts in Vineland to provide the meals, which must meet federal standards. Uniacke said they have been using the company for after-school meals and also used them part of last summer.
Uniacke said the Food Bank will arrange for delivery of the free meals. The participating site just has to provide a place where children can eat and keep track of how many meals are served. The meals cannot be takeout, and sites are inspected for compliance.
Nancy Parello of Advocates for Children of New Jersey is working with the statewide Food for Thought Campaign to raise awareness of the program to parents, with special efforts targeting Atlantic City and Trenton.
The number of sites that offered the meals grew last year to 1,351, which is a 21 percent increase from the prior year.
“People have to know about the locations,” she said.
Parello said they are especially concerned this year that immigrant families may be afraid to participate, especially if they are undocumented and fear deportation.
“We are going to work hard to get the message out,” she said.
The state Department of Agriculture is working with the sponsors to spotlight towns with high need.
Rose Tricario, director of the Division of Food and Nutrition, said kickoff events are being encouraged to introduce families to the program and meal sites. Sponsors are getting special training, and a “farm to summer” program will promote connecting farms or produce distributors to sponsors to add fresh produce to the meals.
The state will also post a list of available meal sites on its web site. The 2016 list is still posted and Tricario said it includes most sites also approved for 2017.
While it is late for new sponsors, Tricario said they can still connect feeding sites with approved sponsors.
“We want to serve as many children as we can,” she said.