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Free summer meal program faces challenges

Free summer meal program faces challenges

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TRENTON — Summer meal programs for children are increasingly important as families may be getting less support from food stamps and pantries, advocates told state legislators at a hearing Monday.

But immigration fears may prevent some of the most vulnerable children from participating, speakers said.

“We are seeing it already,” Community FoodBank of New Jersey President Debra Vizzi told the Assembly Women and Children Committee. “People won’t enroll. They are concerned about being tracked.”

Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, testified before the Assembly Women and Children Committee that they are again seeing an increase in the need for emergency food.

“We had seen a bit of decline, and now it’s increasing again,” LaTourette said. “Emergency food has become part of an ongoing safety net to feed people, and not just in an emergency.”

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Burlington, Camden, who chairs the committee, introduced a bill that will require all public and private schools to notify families of the availability of free summer meals through the National School Lunch Program.

The committee also approved a resolution asking Congress to reduce the minimum level at which towns can offer free summer meals to all children. Currently, free meals are available to all children in towns in which at least 50 percent of children are eligible for the federal meal program. The resolution would reduce the amount to 40 percent.

Last year, almost 20 percent of the almost 430,000 eligible children statewide received free summer meals, or about 84,000 per day. Programs have targeted cities within the 50 percent zone. Locally, the Community FoodBank, Southern Branch, in Egg Harbor Township has been coordinating with sites in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties to provide the meals.

Vizzi said challenges include families that do not speak English, children with food allergies or medical issues, and undocumented residents’ fear participating in the program could jeopardize their immigration status.

“Right now we have no sites that can deal with food allergies or medical issues,” she said.

She said many sites are small, and the logistics of providing meals can be a challenge.

“If you could get all the kids to the Prudential Center or the Atlantic City Convention Center, I could make it happen,” she said of providing meals. “But I can’t get a site like that.”

Representatives from East Orange, Plainfield and Trenton shared success stories and challenges.

Speakers said open sites like parks and community centers can be a challenge because the same number of children may not attend each day, and sponsors are only paid for the actual number of meals they serve.

State Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher said a hotline will be available by the end of June to tell parents where meal sites are in their towns. It can be accessed by texting the word “food” to “877877.”

Program coordinator Rose Tricario said they expect almost 1,400 sites to be operational statewide this summer. A “Farm to Summer” program is encouraging sponsors to use Jersey Fresh produce in the meals.

Cecilia Zalkind, director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said getting the word out about the program sites is crucial.

“When school ends, hunger does not,” she said.


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