Camden roundtable on getting summer meals to hungry families

Audrey Rowe of the USDA's Food Nutrition and Consumer Service at the roundtable at Camden City Hall. Officials explored better access to summer meals when school is out of session.
Audrey Rowe of the USDA's Food Nutrition and Consumer Service at the roundtable at Camden City Hall. Officials explored better access to summer meals when school is out of session. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 09, 2014

CAMDEN Under a mural of smiling children, local organizations and government agencies tasked with feeding hungry children gathered Monday to talk about the time of year when little stomachs typically grumble the loudest: summer.

The roundtable in Camden's City Council chambers brought together New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher and Audrey Rowe, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Nutrition and Consumer Service, for a discussion on ways to raise participation in the federally funded Summer Food Service Program.

The USDA's summer program, which has existed in New Jersey for 15 years, reaches only 19 percent of those who qualify in the state and just 14 percent of children nationwide, according to a study done by the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit based in Washington. Pennsylvania averages about 21 of every 100 children.

Even as access to meals during the school year expanded this year to include dinner in some after-school programs, finding summer meals continues to be a challenge for families.

"What that really tells us is the whole country's got a lot of work to do," Fisher said.

The federally funded program reimburses participating organizations for meals served to children who live in districts where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program. So, students who might not meet the family-income requirements for the Summer Food Service Program can still be eligible for the meals. Meals also are offered to people with disabilities.

"It's rare a government program goes underutilized, but this one does," Rowe said. "We have one bottom line, and that is, how do we ensure no child goes hungry during summer months? Too often, lunch becomes a bag of chips and a soda."

State-approved sponsors may include public or private nonprofit school-food authorities, municipal, county, or state governments, and public or private nonprofit organizations.

Once approved, the organizations are responsible for managing the feeding sites that provide the meals and transporting the food to them. The program typically pays for up to two meals a day - lunch and either breakfast or a snack.

In Camden, the city's Department of Human Services, Urban Promise Ministries, and the Food Bank of Southern New Jersey provide meals to more than 126 sites, mostly school programs and summer camps, according to state figures.

Statewide, meals reach 58,000 children during the summer at 1,036 sites.

New Jersey, which once ranked 49th in access to free and reduced lunches, has moved up to 35th, serving 418,449 children last year, Fisher said.

The goal for summer meals, Rowe said, is to get more sponsors and providers on board to expand the program. She's hoping to increase from 14 percent to 20 percent of eligible children reached next year. To do that, she's trying to get exposure by talking to professional sports leagues about partnerships, as well as looking into ways to ease the burden on providers by allowing for bulk-food distribution once a week, instead of daily deliveries as now required.

While food purchased by providers is reimbursed, administrative costs are not, and the packaging and delivery standards are strict, for health and safety reasons.

In the last two years, the food bank has relied on a vendor in North Jersey - the only one that is state-approved - to deliver the meals, which rarely arrived on time.

Falynn Milligan, director of the program for the food bank, said that this year, the agency planned to make its own meals.

"It takes a lot of infrastructure, and timing can be a real challenge. It took four grants," Milligan said, "to support salaries to run ours."

Monday's roundtable included groups interested in getting involved, including the Camden Children's Garden, the Food Research and Action Center, and the YMCA of Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties.

Missing from the roundtable were some Camden organizations that provide meals nightly to the city's hungry, such as Joseph's House and Cathedral Kitchen, which serves dinner Monday through Friday and lunch Saturdays.

Cathedral Kitchen was not notified about the meeting, but has been approached by the state about joining the program. For a kitchen that is used to serving people on-site restaurant-style, said executive director Karen Talarico, individually packaging and transporting hundreds of meals a day would be very expensive.

Still, Talarico said she'd be open to revisiting the idea. She has seen the summer need firsthand.

"We serve more people during the summer than the rest of the year, which is a fact that surprises a lot of people, who think it'd be during the winter months," she said. "We see a lot of younger faces and families coming in."

On Monday night, Michelle Schenck came for dinner with her three children. During the day, her school-age children, 6 and 14, receive breakfast and lunch at school and then usually go to Cathedral Kitchen for dinner.

Schenck, whose asthma keeps her from working, receives $1,500 in Social Security each month, but after rent, utilities, and the cellphone bill, she said, sometimes she's left with as little as $50 a month for food.

"It's not enough," she said, sipping coffee. "Summer can be bad. We have our moments."

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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