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As Published for the Courier-Post | By , @cp_CWhittakerPublished 4:50 p.m. ET Dec. 18, 2017 | Updated 5:51 p.m. ET Dec. 18, 2017 —

PENNSAUKEN – The numbers are staggering.

About 57,000 children struggle with food insecurity and hunger across the four-county region, according to the Food Bank of South Jersey,

The organization is “always looking for ways that we can really access and outreach those children to ensure they’re being fed a constant supply of nutritious meals that’s sustainable,” according to Lauren Hann, senior manager of communications for the Food Bank of South Jersey, serving Camden, Gloucester Burlington and Salem counties

And the nonprofit is ramping up its efforts to address that food insecurity even more through its recently revamped Afterschool Meals Program. Re-launched on Dec. 1, the initial focus is on 22 program sites so officials can monitor the program’s progress in supplying children with the best meals with adequate nutrition, she explained.

The program falls under the Child and Adult Care Food Program umbrella, a statewide reimbursement program.

“What’s different about our relaunched effort is that we’re working on expanding and enriching our program to bring more children larger portions of nutrition-dense foods through dinners or what we’re calling ‘super snacks,’” Hann said.

“Traditionally, we’ve distributed non-perishable snacks on a weekly or monthly basis through (Child and Adult Care Food Program) but now we’re bringing them freshly made dinners and snacks on a daily basis to provide them with a meal packed full of sustainable nutrition.”

‘Critical Nutritional Safety Net’

Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits and the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are also available for those with disabilities or at a certain poverty level.

In 2016, according to Advocates for Children of New Jersey, 56,111 children in those four counties and 406,259 across the state received SNAP benefits. In Camden, Gloucester, Salem and Burlington counties, 20,765 children benefitted from WIC, with 171,530 recipients throughout New Jersey.

“In South Jersey, thousands of families rely on food stamps to feed their children,” said Adele LaTourette, director, New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. “Many of these parents work at low-paying jobs with unsteady hours and no benefits. This food assistance is a critical nutritional safety net. Right now, Congress is considering cuts to food stamps that would increase the already severe childhood hunger in South Jersey.”

Burlington County has several programs aimed at child food insecurity, according to freeholder Kate Gibbs, liaison to the county health department.

“It’s critical that kids everywhere receive proper nutrition so that they can succeed in the classroom and in life,” Gibbs said.

“Like the Food Bank, it’s an ongoing mission for our freeholder board to provide assistance in any way that we can.”

Gibbs said the health department provides access to nutritional counseling and healthy food for pregnant women, new mothers and young children through the county’s WIC program. There are 10 sites in the county that provide counseling as well as a check to buy approved healthy foods. The county also offers vouchers to WIC clients to be used at local farmers markets.

“We try to collaborate with these nonprofits so that we can all work together to best serve the needs of the community,” she said.

The 22 sites in the revamped Afterschool Meals Program initiative were previously part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program, Hann said.

“With this program, it’s something that we’ve done technically for a number of years by serving these afterschool snacks, but now we’re just taking that component and really enriching it,” Hann said.

The meals use more nutritient-dense foods, fresh vegetables and fruits, items that are not necessarily “shelf stable,” being delivered daily with the idea that the children are getting adequate nutrition in the form of dinner or a “super snack” before they head home.

“This is something that based on our success with the Summer Meals Program, the state actually came to the Food Bank and said ‘we want you to take on this Afterschool Meals Program in a bigger way and really see what we can do more for these children,’” Hann said. “It’s something that we’re really focused on. It’s a great initiative for us.”

Their Summer Meals Program fixed some 400,000 meals over the summer months for 8,100 low-income children, she said.

Missed opportunities

The Food Research & Action Center’s Hunger Doesn’t Take A Summer Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report,” which was released in June, showed that New Jersey communities could collect an additional $6.6 million in federal dollars if they fed summer lunches to more children.

While school breakfast participation has greatly increased over the years in New Jersey, a recent report shows a 2 percent statewide decline in participation from April 2016 to April 2017.

The Food for Thought: 7th Annual New Jersey School Breakfast Report, compiled by Advocates for Children of New Jersey in partnership with New Jersey Food for Thought, found 304,000 children living in low-income families are missing out on a breakfast meal. The students are enrolled in the breakfast program, but are not receiving the meal because many districts serve breakfast before school — when most students have not yet arrived, the report said.

“Even in a state as wealthy as New Jersey, tens of thousands of New Jersey children go without enough food to eat each and every day,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president & CEO of Advocates for Children.

“This not only harms their health and development. It impedes their ability to succeed in school. Our focus on ensuring that all children begin their school day with a nutritious breakfast and receive healthy meals during the summer are important and effective ways to combat this pervasive childhood hunger.”

In City of Camden schools, the report said, there were 8,888 students eligible for free or reduced priced breakfast last year and a total possible federal reimbursement of $1.5 million. While 53 percent of eligible students received the meal (higher than Camden County’s average of 46 percent) more than 4,100 eligible students did not.

The total possible federal reimbursement is the federal dollars the districts would receive if every eligible child received a school breakfast all 180 days of the school year. The funds can only be used for breakfast expenses.

“Keeping our students well-nourished and ready to learn is a priority for Camden schools,” district spokesperson Maita Soukup said. “Last year’s participation numbers were too low, so we are making major efforts to ensure 100 percent of our students receive the free school breakfast for which they are eligible. Early indicators from this school year show that school breakfast participation is at 70 percent.”

Soukup continued that they are now offering more grab-and-go breakfast stations, additional breakfast carts placed in hallways and revamped breakfast menus to encourage students to take advantage of breakfast at schools.

“We are working directly with principals and school administrators to prioritize breakfast service, and are improving student attendance procedures to ensure more students arrive, on time every day,” she said.

“Our numbers trend much higher in K-8 schools and lower in the high schools. The strategies we are implementing this year focus specifically on encouraging older students to take advantage of the free school breakfast as the best way to start their day.”

Cherry Hill had 2,184 eligible students and $503,863 total possible federal reimbursement, yet just a 22 percent participation rate.

The Monroe Township School District had 2,066 eligible students, a total possible federal reimbursement of $457,796, but just a 25 percent participate rate.

The Willingboro School District had 2,273 students eligible, a total possible federal reimbursement of over $458,000, and a 44 percent participation rate, which is the statewide average. In Pemberton, where the participation rate was 42 percent, there was a total possible federal reimbursement of $323,919.

While Willingboro and Pemberton both boast participation rates higher than the Burlington County average of 34 percent, there is still room for growth.

“We work diligently with our vendor (Aramark) to encourage families to complete the free and reduced lunch applications,” Willingboro superintendent Ron Taylor said in a statement. These efforts include a huge community barbecue held during the summer, where families can complete their applications onsite. Additionally, we have implemented a digital lunch application, with hopes that it will expedite the process for our families.

Taylor said the district’s breakfast program is scheduled to get as many students a meal as possible.

Getting a healthy meal in

Hundreds of Food Bank of South Jersey volunteers help prepare the meals and afterschool snacks, which are taken to one of the 22 sites before the children (about 991 of them are currently being served) end their day.

Meals can include such things as milk, a barbeque chicken and cheese wrap on a whole grain tortilla, snap peas and grape tomatoes and grape juice, which are consumed at the end of the school day, or while they’re waiting on the bus to take them home or in an afterschool program.

On a recent afternoon, volunteers packed meals in the test kitchen at the Food Bank where packing and preparation of the meal programs take place.

Darlene Grant of Sicklerville was there with a group from her job at TD Bank. She’s volunteered at the Food Bank with various groups for several years now.

“That’s really dear to me,” she said. “I don’t think any child should ever be hungry. We don’t get to see the other side of it when the kids get the meal, but just to be able to assist in some way is pretty fulfilling.”

Because it is a state-administered program, the Food Bank says there are regulations that have to be followed, just like with the Summer Meals Program. They have to make sure children are being fed within a certain time frame because they are feeding them fresh products and they also have to make sure they’re eating products that the staff on site have established are fresh and not moldy.

“There is state funding that exists for different organizations to be able to put on a meals program of this type, but because the cost of doing something like this is so great, the reimbursement for it, the margins on that are really low, not many organizations are really able to accomplish it and cover their costs,” Hann said.

She said the goal over the next year is to expand the Afterschool Meals Program throughout the four counties they service and “make a much bigger impact for these kids we know are going hungry otherwise.”

Celeste E. Whittaker: @cp_CWhittaker; 856-486-2437;

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