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AtlantiCare summer meal program filling bellies, feeding minds

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.

Several South Jersey downtowns to look better by year's end

Brian Lankin knows the power of revitalization.

More than a decade ago, Lankin, president of Al’s Shoes on Landis Avenue in Vineland, decided to have the shop’s facade redone.

A few years ago, the Al’s Shoes was renovated to get the name of the store in a rectangular box above the front glass windows and the entrance way. A stylized capital “A” at the beginning of the sign is the only letter that extends beyond the borders of the box. A giant black footprint is used an an exclamation point at the end of the word “shoes.”

Lankin received such a good response from the public about what he did to the outside of his business he decided to do renovations to the interior, also.

“I felt obligated to fix the inside,” Lankin said. “They put all new flooring, all new paint, new lighting, a new ceiling. If you invest on the outside facade, it makes you want to invest on the inside.”

The city and Millville are among the 33 municipalities are hoping to revitalize their downtowns with money from the state this year.

Acting Gov. Sheila Oliver, who commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, will make the announcement at 11 a.m. Monday on the front lawn of the Eagle Theatre on Vine Street in Hammonton.

In South Jersey, 2019 Main Street New Jersey grants have been awarded to: Bridgeton, Hammonton, Millville and Vineland.

A second type of grant, known as the 2019 Neighborhood Preservation Program, also was distributed. The South Jersey communities that received this money are Cape May, Egg Harbor City, Hammonton, Millville and Pleasantville.

Main Street Vineland recently received a $20,500 transformation grant from the Main Street New Jersey Program and will use the grant award for a facade improvement program called Operation Facelift.

Operation Facelift is a variation of a program with a similar purpose from several years ago, the program Lankin used, that resulted in several new facades and a new look to Vineland’s downtown.

“Any business in the Main Street-designated district can apply for a grant,” said Russell J. Swanson, executive director of the Vineland Downtown Improvement District. “They will be able to fund a project cost up to $7,500, of which 75 percent we will pay, and 25 percent will be paid for by the property owner or the tenant.”

There is the possibility Vineland will have an additional $20,500 to disperse for businesses to make physical improvements.

The city also has applied to Thrive South Jersey, a partnership between New Jersey Community Capital and the Pascale Sykes Foundation, for an additional $3,000 grant.

Also in Cumberland County, the Millville Development Corporation recently received a transformation grant from the Main Street New Jersey program and will use the $15,000 grant award to remove the fountain on the Glasstown Plaza at High and Sassafras streets, said Marianne K. Lods, executive director of the Millville Development Corp.

The fountain on the plaza no longer works and will be replaced with a human-size checkerboard, Lods said. This will allow for more performance space for events and encourage families to use it for fun activities, she said.

New mini murals also will be created on three buildings in the Glasstown Arts District, Lods said.

A 10-foot high by 12-foot long mural will cover the south end wall of the tunnel, which has graffiti on it and is located across the street from the Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts on North High Street.

The tunnel is a former stable where horse owners paid to keep their horses during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Lods said.

“At our Third Friday evenings, our exhibition nights, often times, we have had musicians set up in there. They love it. They love the acoustics, so we thought the theme of the mural should definitely be music,” Lods said.

The Main Street New Jersey grants are funding awards of $25,000 or less aimed at assisting downtown business district projects such as storefront improvement, place-making and transformation strategies development that can be completed in six months or less, said Lisa M. Ryan, spokeswoman, New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

The Neighborhood Preservation Program provides direct financial and technical assistance to municipalities over 3- to 5-year period to conduct activities that strengthen threatened but viable neighborhoods, Ryan said.

Eligible activities for the $125,000 grants include code enforcement, commercial retail and residential property renovations, community development planning, historic preservation, public facilities improvement and support of community / neighborhood organizations, Ryan said.

Municipal grantees had to show a commitment of resources from the neighborhood and municipality as well as support from community organizations and residents, Ryan said.

Rowan U college affordability initiative takes aim at textbooks

GLASSBORO — Rowan University is doubling the size of a grant program to create free course materials for students with the hope of improving college affordability.

The college awarded 10 grants this year to professors in a variety of studies to create low- to no-cost textbook or reading materials.

Writing arts professor Jude Miller and two of his colleagues were awarded one of the $2,000 grants, which Miller said will save his freshmen students a collective $251,472 next year.

“For me, as corny as it sounds, this provides us the opportunity to help the most amount of people, which is exactly why I got into teaching in the first place,” Miller said.

From free college initiatives to student-loan forgiveness programs, the issue of college affordability is at the forefront of state and national conversations on higher education.

In April, the National Association of College Stores endorsed a federal bill, the Affordable College Textbook Act of 2019, that proposed a grant program to create and expand the use of open textbooks, among other initiatives aimed at textbook affordability.

In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law requiring colleges in the state to submit a plan to the secretary of higher education to expand the use of open textbooks and commercial digital learning materials “to achieve savings for students enrolled in the institution.”

Some colleges nationally and locally have already introduced programs to provide low-cost textbooks for students.

“Affordability is one of Rowan’s four strategic mission pillars,” said Rory McElwee, vice president for student affairs at Rowan. “We know that affordability is one of the primary determinants as to whether students can enroll and stay enrolled.”

Rowan’s Assistant Vice President for Academic Support Services Sean Hendricks said the Textbook Alternative Program came out of the college’s Affordability Taskforce.

“It’s hard to have a conversation of affordability with the idea of textbooks not coming into the fold,” Hendricks said.

The task force surveyed students and found they were spending about $1,200 a year on textbooks.

“Which was concerning on a lot of levels,” Hendricks said. “And a lot of that money is out-of-pocket expenses. We also found that some of our students were not purchasing some of their textbooks, with affordability being the No. 1 reason that they’re not.”

In the first year, Rowan gave out five $2,000 grants to faculty to create low or no-cost textbooks. Professors teaching law and justice, computer science, chemistry, public relations and English all partook and rolled out their materials in spring 2019. Hendricks said the program impacted 650 students.

With more money, Hendricks said they could reach so many more students, so they doubled the number of grant recipients this year hoping to save students a total of $1.2 million in 2020.

“I think it’s a huge deal. We talk about, could we lower the number to zero? We don’t know the answer to that, but we can certainly lend a hand to make it more affordable,” Hendricks said.

Miller and fellow writing professor Amanda Haruch, along with Sam Kennedy, Rowan’s information literacy librarian, will use library resources as well as online open education resources to replace the two standard textbooks that are currently being used in the College Composition II class. About 2,300 students take the course each year and were previously required to purchase a $50 textbook, on the lower end of the price scale for college materials.

“This is a course that every student, regardless of their major, takes, and I believe that it’s incumbent on us just to be mindful of supporting students,” Miller said.

He said incoming freshmen already face a number of obstacles.

“While we don’t have any control over the cost of tuition, we do have control over one albeit-small cost in their freshman year,” he said.

James Grinias, an assistant professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department who took part in the grant last year, redeveloped the Analytical Chemistry and Quantitative Analysis course materials using an open-source textbook at no cost to students. The savings for students were $47,656.

Grinias said he knows how expensive books were for him as a student, and how the cost has risen.

“It was hard for me to assign a book that cost over $300, so I wanted to explore free alternatives,” he said. “The students were happy that there was no cost for the open-source textbook, and I found that they still performed well in the class with the new book.”

Grinias said the price of higher education is a constant concern.

“And it is our duty as professors to do anything we can do to help reduce the costs of a high-quality education,” he said.

CRDA plan for free offices in Boardwalk Hall 'anti-development,' landlord says

ATLANTIC CITY — The landlord who may lose the Board of Education as a tenant, if space at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall is renovated to offer the board free rent, said his company will appeal the tax assessment on 1300 Atlantic Avenue if it loses one of its main tenants.

“What the CRDA wants to do is totally anti-development,” said Aron Gottlieb, senior vice president of Diversified Capital in Lakewood, of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s proposal to spend $10.5 million to renovate long-vacant space in Boardwalk Hall.

“How many people will come to town and invest when they know the CRDA is going to pull out their tenants?” Gottlieb said. “How can anybody compete with free?”

Diversified bought the 135,000-square-foot, 8-story building known as the CitiCenter for $1.75 million in 2004. It is assessed at $4.5 million — $1 million for the land and $3.5 million for the improvements — and the company pays $179,200 a year in property taxes, according to city tax records.

“He’s a private sector developer,” said CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty in defending offering the Board of Education free rent. “It would make sense for him to have private sector clients.”

“If we can deliver government services in a more efficient, effective manner, we will,” Doherty said. “We are not taking his private sector clients.”

The BOE would contribute another $2.1 million to the renovation, for a total cost of $12.6 million for 28,000 square feet of space. That works out to $450 per square foot.

The school board pays Diversified $650,000 a year in rent for 18,000 square feet at 1300 Atlantic Avenue. It includes all utilities, parking for 82 employees, and janitorial and maintenance service, Gottlieb said.

Diversified offered the board a 10% discount in rent if it signed a long-term contract of about 10 years, according to Gottlieb.

Security guard Rosalyn Pugh said she will miss the Board of Education employees if the move happens, and so will area businesses and restaurants.

“I’m going to hate to see these people go. I’m close to all of them,” Pugh said. “Of course, a lot of them go out together to eat. It’s going to put a dent in (local businesses).”

Pugh said most of the foot traffic into the building is parents and others visiting the board offices.

The board of education has the fifth and sixth floors, and the state Division of Gaming Enforcement has the second through fourth floors, according to signs in the lobby.

Gottlieb also said merchants along Atlantic Avenue will lose the business of the board’s 82 workers, further deteriorating the central business district of the city. He questioned Superintendent of Schools Barry Caldwell’s characterization of the area around his building as unsafe.

“We are right across from the county building and Court House,” Gottlieb said. “It’s more secure than other buildings.”

And he pointed out the board will be moving to Boardwalk Hall, which sits across Pacific Avenue from a “gentleman’s club” advertising strippers and pole dances.

The building dates to 1920, and for decades was the home of the M. E. Blatt & Company Department Store. It also was the home of Lit Brothers when that store closed in the 1970s, and has been an office building since.

Gottlieb said the board of education would still have to pay hundreds of thousands a year for electric, heat, parking, maintenance and other amenities.

“There might not be rent (at Boardwalk Hall), but there will be other payments,” Gottlieb said.

Doherty said the board will be given free parking in Boardwalk Hall’s underground garage but will pay its own utilities.

Diversified owns 17 buildings in New Jersey and around the U.S. The building at 1300 Atlantic Ave. is its only holding in Atlantic City, Gottlieb said.

“We’ve been looking at other properties (in Atlantic City), but as of today we’re stopping,” Gottlieb said, “if this is the way they treat businesses.”