This is the first published report on afterschool meal programs in one of the wealthiest states in the nation that still has stubborn problems with poverty and hunger. HFNJ estimates that 268,000 New Jersey children, or 14 percent of those under age 18, are food insecure.

No appetite for afterschool suppers?

Yet afterschool meals have been served in schools and community programs for years. Children have been able to get snacks as part of afterschool activities since 1998. The 2010 national Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act made funding for suppers available. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds the feeding programs, as it covers the school breakfast and lunch programs. Sites in or near schools where at least half of students are eligible for free or low-cost school meals get 91 cents per snack served and $3.54 for each dinner. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture oversees the programs in the state.

According to the report, the number of students receiving a snack or supper, or both, rose by 21 percent from 2016 to 2019. During last March, more than 70,000 students got some afterschool nutrition, with schools and other programs serving 1.38 million snacks and suppers in total.

The increase was due in part to efforts by state agriculture officials to recruit more school districts into the program and give targeted technical assistance to school nutrition directors, according to the report. It said the state has also provided additional training and worked with anti-hunger and nonschool organizations to identify and recruit eligible programs.

Still, while 160 school districts provided afterschool snacks under the auspices of the National School Lunch Program last March, only 11 fed students supper through the more recent Child and Adult Care Food Program. More than four times that many off-school sites — 47 sponsored by local governments or nonprofits — participated in CACFP and provided students with suppers. The snacks or meals are available as part of afterschool education or enrichment programs in or near schools where at least half the students have low incomes. The 58 programs that served suppers to children collected $1.8 million for snacks and meals served in just March 2019.

Newark making inroads on hunger

Newark embraced the afterschool meals program early and has had great success in reaching students, with more than four of every 10 eligible for the federal school lunch program getting supper before going home. It has one of the highest rates of feeding supper to students in the state.

Kendra Burton, manager of the Newark Board of Education’s program, said the district serves about 8,900 meals a day to district students, as well as to those attending charter school or recreation programs. They get a hot meal three days a week and a cold meal on the other two. Meals can include spaghetti and meatballs with a salad, whole-grain roll and milk or a chicken salad wrap with vegetables and milk. Examples of snacks include fruit, vegetables, whole-grain crackers and cheese.

“We have really good after-school programs that attract a lot of students,” Burton said. “For many, this is their last meal of the day. It’s so crucial. The students really look forward to it and the parents really like knowing their children have eaten a complete meal.”

Under the CACFP, programs can also serve meals on weekends and during school breaks, which gives communities more opportunities to fill the gaps children often face, LaTourette said.

“We’re really encouraging more school districts to switch to CACFP,’’ LaTourette said. “They can feed dinner to students during the week and during breaks, while collecting higher federal reimbursements.’’

Healthy meals, healthy reimbursements

If all eligible communities were feeding suppers to 15 percent of children receiving free- or reduced-cost lunches, they would receive close to $20 million in reimbursement for doing so, the report states.

“We know that many New Jersey families struggle to put food on the table,’’ said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “We know that poor nutrition leads to poor outcomes for kids, so it is crucial that communities work together to tap into this and other federal child-nutrition programs.’’

The report cites several reasons why more children don’t get a meal as part of an afterschool program. Many officials operating those activities don’t know about CACFP. Of those who do, many operate on limited budgets with part-time staff, making it difficult to participate. School officials have to complete additional paperwork to provide suppers, rather than just snacks, after school and that has impeded many from giving full meals.

Another problem is the lack of afterschool programs in some communities. According to the Afterschool Alliance, more than 230,000 New Jersey youth take part in such activities, but another 422,000 would participate if local programs were available. Afterschool programs can help boost academic achievement and provide safe places for low-income children to play after school, when one or more parents are working or not home. But many working families find these programs unaffordable unless they are funded partly or fully by public or private dollars.

“More than half of these children go home after school to an empty house — and many to empty cupboards,” the report states.

Reinvestment Fund has created the New Jersey Child Nutrition Fund to provide capital funding and technical assistance for federal nutrition program sponsors, sites, and meal vendors to help expand the number of communities that provide afterschool meals. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of NJ Spotlight’s funders, is supporting this effort.

Drumming up participation

The report calls for implementing other solutions to increase the number of children getting supper after school. These include boosting recruitment efforts to get more school districts to participate; streamlining state administrative and paperwork requirements for the afterschool and summer-meal programs, so that students benefiting from one will also get meals through the other; and getting small afterschool programs to become nutrition sites under existing sponsors that can handle most administrative duties.

“Far too many children come home from school to an empty table and may not get anything to eat until they go to school the next morning,’’ LaTourette said. “There is absolutely no reason for this when federal dollars are waiting to be claimed to feed these children.’’

It also suggests that federal officials lower the eligibility requirement for communities from half of students being low-income to 40 percent and make it easier for communities to qualify by using the same data that makes them eligible for summer-meal programs.

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