TRENTON - As schools close for the summer, communities across New Jersey are gearing up to serve free, nutritious meals to children and teens this summer after breaking records last summer for serving more children than ever before.
Last summer, communities served a record 51% of students who received free school lunch during the academic year, surpassing the national benchmark of 40% of these students.
A new report from Hunger Free New Jersey shows a wide disparity in participation rates among the 161 municipalities that participated in two federal summer meals programs - Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option - in 2020.
Eleven communities served meals to more children than the number who received free school lunches during the academic year. That's because the federal government relaxed rules during the pandemic, allowing communities to serve all children for free, regardless of the community's poverty level. In normal times, only communities where at least half of students qualify for free or low-cost school meals can serve all children for free.
Those relaxed rules resulted in many communities with fewer low-income students participating in the program. Since summer meal participation rates are calculated as a percentage of low-income students who received free or low-cost school lunches in February 2020, these communities exceeded 100% participation.
Forty-five New Jersey communities reached between 40 and 99% of students receiving free school lunches. The remainder - 105 - reached less than 40%.
"We commend the many communities that really stepped up last year and made meals readily available to all children,'' stated Adele LaTourette, director, Hunger Free New Jersey. "We encourage communities to continue maximizing participation in these important federal summer nutrition programs for children. Many families struggle every summer to put food on the table.''
In July 2020 alone, more than 9 million meals were provided to roughly 203,000 children throughout the Garden State - a 183% increase over July 2019. The number of children served during that same time was double the number served in July 2019, according to Hunger Free New Jersey's statewide summer meals snapshot released earlier this year.
A key reason behind the increase in summer meals service last year was the relaxation of federal rules that enabled summer meal sponsors to allow parents to pick up multiple meals at one time, making it easier for families to participate, and to feed all children for free.
The federal rule waivers continue this summer. While some programs will serve meals on site, many others will continue to use the grab-and-go model.
The New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA) is still approving sponsors and sites to operate this summer. However, as of mid-June, 174 Summer Food Service Program sponsors had been approved to serve meals at more than 1,200 sites. Sites can be approved through July, so that number is likely to grow, state officials said.
"We are seeing sustained and expanded interest in the federal summer meal programs, and that is great news for children across New Jersey,'' NJDA Secretary Douglas Fisher stated. "We will be busy working with communities throughout the summer to ensure that all children receive adequate nutrition.''
Organizations that sponsor summer meal programs receive federal reimbursement for each qualified meal served. To learn more about participating, contact the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, at 609-292-4498. To find meal sites, visit summerfoodrocks.org, text food to 877-877 or call 1-866-3-HUNGRY.