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Despite attempts to make it easier for students to receive free meals during the pandemic, the number of students in New Jersey who accepted meals during the school year remained frustratingly low.

However, programs are now in place to feed a larger number of hungry children in the state. Federal programs have been adjusted to allow schools to feed any child through the summer and at least until the end of September. Informing people about these resources remains a challenge, however.

The problem was highlighted when news emerged about a Monmouth County student who admitted during a virtual class that her mother lost her job and her family did not have enough to eat. Although a social worker eventually ensured the family received food, the case showed that, despite added pandemic-era support for children’s meal programs, too many children in the Garden State still go hungry.

Hunger in New Jersey In New Jersey, 774,860 people are struggling with hunger, and 219,760 of those are children, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit national network of food banks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that there may be up to 12 million children in the nation living in households where there is not enough to eat.

“Food insecurity” is defined by the USDA as a lack of consistent access to affordable, nutritious food to lead a healthy life, and in New Jersey, one of the wealthiest states in the nation, a disturbing 1.2 million people are food insecure. One in five children have experienced food insecurity since the pandemic began, said Nicole Williams, a spokesperson for Community FoodBank of New Jersey. She said about 800,000 people in the state were food insecure prior to the outbreak, reflecting a 50% increase since COVID began disrupting life last year.

Kim Guadagno, former state lieutenant governor and the current president/CEO of the nonprofit food bank known as Fulfill, told NJ.com that the hungry girl who complained to her class was one of the thousands of children in New Jersey who don’t have enough to eat. Since the lockdowns in March 2020, Monmouth and Ocean counties alone have seen 92% and 64% increases in need, respectively. There was a 40% increase in demand at her food bank, she said.

High demand is expected to continue. In fact, Guadagno predicts it will go on for about two to three years.

Williams said more people might not be using school meal programs because they are not sure they are eligible. They may not know that schools offer meals in the summer. Some people may not be aware that adjustments, or “waivers” granted to food programs now mean that any child (or person with a mental or physical disability) can receive food free of charge.

The State of Student Meals The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides low-cost or free school lunch meals to qualified students. It is administered federally by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, and in the state by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA). Children do not have to be U.S. citizens to apply for the program. New Jersey makes all meals free.

During the pandemic, the Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) benefits also were provided for children in the national lunch program. The P-EBT funds let families shop for food on their own.

To ensure no child goes hungry during this public health emergency, the New Jersey Department of Education is working with school officials to continue distributing free meals for eligible students.

Check with your local school district to learn how they are distributing free meals.

Under the New Jersey Governor’s Executive Order No. 175, all school districts participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs must offer meals to all children, regardless of eligibility, when the school day involves at least four hours of in-person or remote instruction, according to the state’s COVID-19 information hub.

The rules that existed before the pandemic have been relaxed so that more children and families in need will have enough to eat.

“The USDA is extending these waivers to provide local program operators with clarity and certainty for the summer months ahead, when many children cannot access the school meals they depend on during the academic year,” the state agriculture department said in a statement.

Adoption Obstacles Underuse of free food programs is a nationwide trend, according to a Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) report. FRAC examined breakfast and lunch participation during October 2019, April 2020, and October 2020. Data was collected from 54 school districts in 28 states and Washington D.C. — including Newark and Elizabeth. In April 2020, districts served 17.7 million breakfasts and 18.8 million lunches, down from 21 million breakfasts and 44 million lunches compared to October 2019.

Jeff Wolf, spokesman for the state agriculture department, said communicating with the public about food availability is an important aspect of encouraging more people to use the resources.

“School districts should regularly communicate with families about how and where meals are available,” Wolf said. “They need to let families know that all students are currently eligible for free meals in the districts offering summer meal programs.”

Helene Meissner, director of the NORWESCAP Food Bank in Phillipsburg, said school districts worked diligently to provide meals to families during the height of the pandemic — especially as it shifted to summer meals programs.

“The issue was how to get them [the meals] to the kids and families,” recalled Meissner, whose food bank serves a multi-county region in northwestern New Jersey. “That did not work out as well as they hoped.”

Even when food distribution sites were allowed to dole out multiple meals or expand to more centrally located sites, use of the service in her area still didn’t increase.

Shifts in parents being home, or some families getting P-EBT (which let people choose which food they wanted to purchase) could be a reason why more families didn’t participate, Meissner said. School meal programs may have done better in urban areas, where families wouldn’t need to drive far to get food, she noted. They made use of food that was unused, distributing it to smaller pantries or senior centers.

Though summer school meals didn’t take off in her area, Meissner’s food bank did see a positive response to the summer backpack program they manage, which has gone on for well over a decade.

Meissner thinks that financial hardships will still plague families in the fall. That could mean that more students would qualify for free breakfast or lunch. If children are in the buildings come September, that would likely ensure more students would receive meals.

“The districts will be prepared for that,” she said.

Nancy Parello, a spokesperson for Hunger Free New Jersey, agrees that parents’ schedules could play a part in how many families take advantage of school meals.

“It’s going better in more innovative districts,” she said, adding that the group has been encouraging school districts to take more proactive measures to simplify the processes.

“If they’re not getting that nutrition it’s a problem,” Parello said, citing research that has linked hunger to poor academic performance and development.

“They’re already facing enough challenges,” she said. “It is painful…the money is there.”

Food Crisis: No End in Sight Williams hopes more families use school meal programs. This could alleviate the uptick in need for food banks across the state.

“At the food bank, we don’t expect this food insecurity crisis to go away any time soon,” she said. “Once the pandemic itself is over, the crisis will continue.”

Based on past economic downturns, Williams said it’s normal that it takes a while for food insecurity levels to return to normal.

“We expect elevated need to persist,” Williams added.

How School Leaders Can Combat Hunger NJSBA is part of Hunger Free New Jersey’s Food for Thought campaign, which aims to tackle childhood hunger.

“There is so much food available under these programs. The message just isn’t getting out there,” Parello said.

She would like to see school board members help drive awareness of the summer meal programs. As such, children would receive much-needed food during a time of year that is often more challenging to reach students. “There’s definitely a role for school board members in this,” she said. More information can be obtained by contacting Hunger Free New Jersey at https://hungerfreenj.org/.

Kristen Fischer is a School Leader contributing editor.