Christie takes questions from Camden students

Principal Joseph Ortiz (left) and Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd join Gov. Christie at a news conference during his visit to Dudley Elementary School in Camden. Christie talked with many of the students.
Principal Joseph Ortiz (left) and Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd join Gov. Christie at a news conference during his visit to Dudley Elementary School in Camden. Christie talked with many of the students. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 25, 2014

As they dug into rotisserie chicken with gravy, garlic mashed potatoes, and steamed carrots and peas, the students in the after-school program at Dudley Elementary School in Camden took turns asking Gov. Christie questions between mouthfuls.

"What's your favorite food?" one student asked. "Spaghetti," Christie said, "Though I don't get to eat it as much as I used to."

Christie visited Camden to put the spotlight on the free dinner program run in partnership with Aramark and subsidized by the federal government. It was his first public appearance since Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer accused his administration of denying Sandy relief funds if she did not support a redevelopment project and as more subpoenas over the George Washington Bridge scandal were issued Thursday.

Christie did not address either topic but took questions from elementary-age students, pledged to make education a priority, and touted the work of state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who took over in August.

"We're going to remain steadfast in our commitment to make sure every child in New Jersey has a chance at a great education, not only because it's the right thing to do but because I truly believe it's what's required of us," Christie said at a news conference attended by local and state elected officials, including Mayor Dana L. Redd.

Rouhanifard launched the hot dinner, served between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m. to 75 to 125 students at each of six schools, earlier this month.

The dinners have already increased attendance in after-school programs, said bilingual teacher Isabel Nunez.

"A lot of these kids don't eat at home until 10 at night, or whenever their parents get off work," Nunez said. "The first thing we do here is homework, and this gets them their energy back, so they can focus."

The first lunch period of the day is at 10:30 a.m., Nunez said. "That's a long while to go with just a snack."

Amy Gordillo, 8, a third grader who attends the after-school program, particularly enjoyed the garlic mashed potatoes.

"Sometimes I do [get hungry] after school," she said. "Sometimes my tummy goes . . .," she said, quickly waving her hands in front of her stomach.

Christie walked around the cafeteria, where about 70 students ate surrounded by news cameras, photographers, and reporters, answering their questions.

As little hands shot up (some had questions written in advance on index cards), Christie told students he struggled in math and that his first dream was to be a major league pitcher. He said his greatest accomplishment was being a father, and received a chorus of "woahs" when he told a young girl he was 51.

One fifth-grade boy asked Christie why the state was taking over Camden schools, to which he replied, "We're not taking it over, really, we're working in partnership with everyone here . . . to make the schools better."

In the news conference following the question-and-answer session, Christie harked back to some of the questions the children had tossed his way, particularly the girl who asked him about his first dream.

"The dreams you have for your children are the ones that stay with you for a lifetime, and if they don't reach those dreams because we failed, that's unacceptable," he said.

Christie complimented Rouhanifard's work in his first five months in Camden, which has included the implementation of a safe corridors program, new technology centers, and this dinner pilot program.

Rouhanifard will announce his strategic plan for the district at 6 p.m. Monday at Octavius V. Catto Community School.

The hot meals, which include milk and fruit, are being served at Dudley, Catto, HB Wilson Elementary, Hatch Family School, U.S. Wiggins School, and Camden High School. Rouhanifard said he hoped to expand them to all schools in the district where 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches. All schools currently also serve breakfast.

"It goes without saying, when students are eating a full meal and leading a healthy lifestyle, they perform better in the classroom," Rouhanifard said.

It was just three years ago that Christie vetoed the entire $2 million allocation for grants for after school and summer activities for at-risk children and the $3 million allocation for the New Jersey After 3 after-school program, eliminating after-school activities.

Advisory School Board President Katheryn Blackshear said that's "ancient history" now. When the state took control, the board and Redd met with the governor, she said, and after-school care and meals were put at the top of everyone's list.

"We've been wanting to do this for some time, but it was a matter of implementing it, and I'm so happy today, I can't tell you. I was a welfare mom, and I know how much this can help," she said.

Nationally, more urban districts are taking advantage of the free dinner programs funded through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2010, which reimburses low income communities for meals outside the traditional school day.

"One of the positive things we hear across the board is that the meals draw kids into after-school programs, which then keep them learning," said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school programs for the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on hunger and undernutrition in the United States.

FitzSimons said the law makes many groups eligible, including community-based recreation centers, schools, and summer programs: "I think a lot of people do not know about this option. One of the biggest hindrances to its growth is they don't know it's available."

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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