NEW JERSEY — Millions of U.S. kids are eligible for not only free and reduced-cost lunches at school, but supper and snacks as well. However, a shrinking number of kids in New Jersey are taking advantage of a federal after-school meal program aimed at curbing childhood hunger.
According to a new report by Food Resource & Action Center, more than 1.4 million U.S. children received supper through the federal Afterschool Nutrition Program in October 2019, a 6.5 percent increase from the previous year.
The Afterschool Nutrition Program is separate from the National School Lunch Program, another federal initiative that provides free or reduced-price lunch to kids at more than 100,000 U.S. schools each school day.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the program provided in-school meals to more than 22 million children. About 12.5 million also received free and reduced-price breakfast, according to the School Nutrition Association.
In New Jersey, a total of 19,004 kids took advantage of after-school meals in 2019, a 21.3 percent decrease from 2018.
The number of kids receiving after-school meals both nationwide and in our state is only a fraction of those who receive free and reduced-price lunch while there.
In October 2019, for every 100 low-income children who participated in the National School Lunch Program, just 6.6 children received an after-school supper the same month.
In 2019, 394,383 kids from New Jersey received free and reduced-price lunch through their school district. By contrast, over 450,000 kids participated in the free and reduced-price lunch program in 2018.
While no official data exists on it yet, experts say the coronavirus pandemic is affecting not only participation in school meal programs but also the number of kids and families experiencing hunger and food insecurity.
A year ago, national food insecurity levels were at a 20-year low, according to data compiled by Feeding America, one of the largest hunger relief organizations in the United States. Despite the milestone, though, 35 million people — including more than 10 million children — still lived in food-insecure households.
In 2020, record-setting unemployment and sudden health care expenses due to the pandemic have caused a dramatic spike in the number of hungry Americans.
According to an analysis of data from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of children who sometimes don't have enough to eat is 14 times higher than it was in 2019.
Another projection by Feeding America says as many as 1 in 4 children could be food insecure by the end of 2020.
As schools continue to navigate the pandemic and the realities that accompany virtual learning, staggered schedules, and hybrid models of instruction, researchers say the hours that children are “out of school” have only increased.
The Food Research & Action Center — which works with school districts, organizations and policymakers nationwide — has set a goal for school districts that for every 100 low-income children participating in school lunch, districts should reach at least 15 of those children through the Afterschool Supper Program. The center also calculates a shortfall by looking at the number of unserved children and the federal dollars lost.
FRAC researchers said the organization sets a “modest goal” to help ensure all states can reach it.
Still, 31 states total served fewer than 1 child for every 20 children who participated in the free and reduced lunch program. Five states — Wyoming, Mississippi, Iowa, Hawaii and North Dakota — served fewer than 2 students for every 100 school lunch program participants.
Comparing October 2019 to October 2018, 36 states were moving in the right direction by increasing participation in after-school suppers — 22 of states increased by more than 10 percent, and four states increased the number of children participating by 50 percent.
While the after-school meal program plays a critical role in ensuring kids in 2020 have enough to eat, the program is still falling short of meeting the country’s needs.
As U.S. reopenings and the recovery continues, researchers say it’s critical for the federal school meal programs to maintain the number of kids reached as well as any gains achieved in previous years. The report includes a number of policy proposals that could be adapted to better support the system.
Read the full report here.
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Patch has partnered with Feeding America to help raise awareness on behalf of the millions of Americans facing hunger. Feeding America, which supports 200 food banks across the country, estimates that in 2020, more than 54 million Americans will not have enough nutritious food to eat due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a Patch social good project; Feeding America receives 100 percent of donations. Find out how you can donate in your community or find a food pantry near you.