With food pantries across New Jersey struggling to keep up with demand due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer plans to conduct a town-by-town review of schools in the Fifth District to determine if students eligible for free meals are receiving them.
The congressman’s announcement follows reports of families who encountered difficulties accessing free and reduced-price meals in the Montague Township School District, where about a tenth of households are below the poverty line.
On Nov. 2, when the district finally began offering free meals, officials underestimated demand and ran out of food, leaving many families empty-handed.
Calling it “unacceptable,” Gottheimer, State Sen. Steve Oroho, Assemblyman Parker Space and Assemblyman Hal Wirths are formally requesting a plan from the school district on how it will improve its meals program to ensure access for families facing food insecurity during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is shameful that certain Montague Township School District officials have not made feeding children a priority, especially during these challenging times,” the lawmakers wrote in a Nov. 19 letter to Schools Superintendent Timothy Capone.
As part of the CARES Act passed in March, $8.8 billion was allocated for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, two federal programs that subsidize meals served to students. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended waivers for its summer food programs through June 2021.
The programs allow families in participating school districts to pick up pre-packaged meals at pre-arranged times and locations, even if they would not otherwise qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Initially, Montague reportedly decided not to participate because officials said more than half of the district’s families declined free and reduced-price meals in the Spring, even though they were eligible.
Two months after the school year began, officials opted to participate in the Seamless Summer Option, a USDA program that allows schools to receive full federal reimbursement for all meals served.
Lawmakers Say District Was ‘Unprepared’
Gottheimer, Oroho, Space and Wirths said they were “relieved” the district is taking advantage of the program and avoiding “leaving our federal tax dollars on the table.”
“Unfortunately, on the first day of the program, the school district ran out of meals before serving every family,” the legislators said.
“The district has shown that it is unprepared to meet the obvious demand of Montague children and families who need help. According to recent reports, the school district has not only grossly miscalculated interest in the program, but has also made access to these meals difficult for some residents,” they said. “This is simply unacceptable.”
‘Nothing Could Be More Important’
At the start of the school year in September, Gottheimer reached out to districts across North Jersey to make sure meal programs are available to children.
He wrote to school superintendents to request information on their plans to distribute meals safely to eligible students during the pandemic whether they are attending school in-person or remotely.
In New Jersey, more than 500,000 children are eligible to receive free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch. A report by the Food Research & Action Center found that 2,630 schools in the state participated in the National School Lunch Program and 2,172 offered breakfast.
“I’m going to be a cop on the beat for this issue, because nothing could be more important than making sure our children have enough to eat,” he said of his upcoming district-by-district review.
Demand On The Rise At Food Banks
Statewide, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey has seen record-breaking numbers between March and August, distributing enough food for about 40 million meals. At its peak, there was a 50% increase in demand for food assistance.
According to the organization, one in five children in New Jersey will experience food insecurity this year. The Community FoodBank of New Jersey also projects a 56% increase in the number of food-insecure residents by the end of 2020.
Job loss and other financial issues stemming from the ongoing pandemic could push the local rate of food insecurity even higher by year’s end, according to Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” study.