NOTE: The Cape May County Herald is offering full coverage of the COVID-19 / coronavirus emergency to all, with no payment required. We are committed to ensuring our readers can make critical decisions for themselves and their families during this ongoing situation. To continue supporting this vital reporting, please consider a digital subscription. For more coverage, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

TRENTON - Last summer, more New Jersey children received meals during the summer – a time when many children face hunger because they do not have access to school meals, according to a report released today by Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

New Jersey Department of Agriculture data show that New Jersey communities served up summer meals to nearly 84,000 children on an average day in July 2016 through three federal summer meals programs. That means an average of about 4,700 more children received a summer meal each day, translating to 6 percent increase over July 2015, according to the report.

In addition, the number of sites where children living in low-income communities could receive a meal increased 21 percent from 1,113 in 2015 to 1,351 in 2016, according to state data.

“This is encouraging progress and has been fueled, in large part, by a concerted effort by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and the New Jersey Food for Thought Campaign to recruit more summer meal sponsors and sites,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president & CEO, Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which co-chairs the campaign.

“We continue to encourage communities – schools, municipal government and community organizations – to provide the summertime nutrition children need to stay healthy and return to school ready to learn,” Zalkind said.

Since communities are reimbursed based on the number of meals served, New Jersey communities could collect an estimated $5.7 million more federal dollars each year to feed hungry children during the summer months, the report said.

Family budgets are stretched tight in the summer when many parents must pay extra for child care and summer camps. At the same time, children do not have access to school meals, meaning that thousands of New Jersey children face hunger in the summer.

To fight summertime hunger, the United States Department of Agriculture provides funding to local governments, school districts and community organizations to serve summer meals to children. These meals are typically served at places where children congregate – parks, pools, libraries and recreation programs, among other sites.

In addition to providing free, healthy meals, these programs also offer an opportunity for children 18 years and younger to play together, engage in enrichment activities, hone their academic skills and be better prepared when they return to school in September.

“To effectively implement these programs, communities must work together to meet the logistical challenges,” Zalkind noted. “The Department of Agriculture provides training and technical assistance. While we’ve made progress, thousands of children still lack access to these meals. We urge community leaders and organizations to step up to meet the summertime nutrition challenge.’’