NEWTON, NJ (Sussex County) – U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer Friday sounded the alarm on heightened food insecurity in North Jersey resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as ongoing issues regarding the school meal program in Montague Township School District for families and students in need. The School District delayed enrolling in a COVID-funded federally-reimbursable meals program; hard-pressed families have been facing difficulties in picking up the meals.
Gottheimer, along with NJ State Senator Steve Oroho and Assemblymen Parker Space and Hal Wirths, sent a letter this week to the Montague School Superintendent formally requesting a detailed plan to improve the effectiveness of the school meals program to ensure access to meals for all Montague children and families who need them.
Gottheimer sent a recorded message to Montague families and parents Thursday afternoon asking if they are having issues accessing school breakfast and lunch meals for their children, so that the families can be connected to the appropriate resources.
In Montague Township, about a tenth of households are below the poverty line. On the first day the Montague School District finally offered free meals to students in need this fall, they ran out of meals before serving every family.
Gottheimer also announced that he will be conducting a review, town-by-town, of Fifth District school districts that may not be offering meals for which their students are in fact eligible.
“As strong proponents of federal programs that reimburse our local schools for getting resources to families in need, we believe that the school district must take advantage of this program and avoid leaving our federal tax dollars on the table,” Congressman Gottheimer, NJ State Senator Oroho, and NJ State Assemblymen Space and Wirths wrote this week in a letter to Montague School Superintendent Timothy Capone. “A school’s core mission is to support the development of its students. This cannot be achieved without supporting their health and well-being. As we continue to grapple with the public health and economic crises, many students and families are also facing growing food insecurity. It is shameful that certain Montague Township School District officials have not made feeding children a priority, especially during these challenging times.”
To help combat food insecurity issues across North Jersey, Gottheimer also said, “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. My office and I will be conducting a review, town-by-town, of School Districts that may not be offering meals that their students are in fact eligible for.”
Right now, nationwide, nearly 24 million Americans have reported food insecurity, which is an increase of 6 million people due to the pandemic. In New Jersey, according to a Community FoodBank of New Jersey state-wide report released this fall, the recent months have been record-breaking for their organization. March through August saw the distribution of enough food for about 40 million nutritious meals, and, at the peak, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey and their partners have reported upwards of a 50% increase in demand for food assistance at their sites.
In addition, according to a report, New Jersey ranks last in the proportion of eligible schools providing breakfast. In 2017-2018, 2,630 NJ schools participated in the national school-lunch program, while 2,172, or 82.6 percent of them, offered breakfast. Nationally, more than 93 percent of schools that gave students free or reduced-price lunch also provided breakfast.
In March 2020, Congress worked to address the increased demand for free and reduced-price meals during the pandemic by passing the bipartisan CARES Act, which included $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs and waivers to provide schools more flexibility in distributing meals. These programs include the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, both of which substantially subsidize meals that schools serve to students. Additionally, the USDA extended waivers for its Summer Food Service Program and National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option through June of next year, 2021. These programs allow schools and other sites to continue receiving full federal reimbursement for all meals served throughout the school year.
In September 2020, Gottheimer wrote a letter to school superintendents requesting information about their plans to distribute meals safely to school breakfast and lunch eligible children during the coronavirus pandemic to Fifth District students learning in-person and remotely.