FoodBank Fights Hunger So Kids Can Thrive

Published in the Asbury Park Press- April 21, 2014

Story by Susanne Cervenka – Photo by Tom Spader

ASBURY PARK — Kevin Oakley comes to the Boys & Girls Club to play pingpong and video games with his friends.

For him, the sloppy joes are just a bonus.

“They’re my favorite,” said the 15-year-old from Asbury Park, who also touts the baked ziti in the menu rotation at Kids Cafe, the meal program offered at the after-school club.

Oakley said he can have dinner at home if he doesn’t like what’s offered.

But for many Shore area kids — one in five in Ocean County and one in six in Monmouth County — it’s not a question of whether the meal they’ll eat is something they like.

It’s whether they’ll eat at all that night.

“The idea of hunger is such an abstract idea to many people,” said Douglas Eagles, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Monmouth County, which offers the meal program at its Asbury Park and Red Bank sites.

“When you come into an under-resourced area, hunger is a reality that threatens the ability to achieve all of those things we all strive for. It creates a vortex of destruction.”

Efforts like the Kids Cafe, offered in partnership with the FoodBank of Monmouth & Ocean Counties, as well as school lunch programs and backpack initiatives, which give children food for the weekend, help bridge the gap.

The FoodBank has been working with the Boys & Girls Club of Monmouth to offer Kids Cafe for the last eight years.

On a typical week, students training to be chefs in the FoodBank’s culinary program prepare dinner that will be served in Asbury Park and Red Bank. Last week, Kids Cafe offered breakfast and lunch to coincide with the Boys & Girls Club’s daytime programs for spring break.

“Just the fact we have the hot meals sells to the parents and the community,” said Ebony Holloway, child care director at the club.

Meanwhile, the BackPack program, which is entirely funded by private donations, provides breakfasts, lunches and snacks that schools hand out to children at risk of going hungry over the weekend. The FoodBank partners with 22 schools in Ocean and Monmouth counties, serving 600 children each month.

“From our standpoint, when you don’t have your basic needs met, it’s very difficult to focus on something more,” said Brian Latwis, director of pupil personnel services at the Keansburg School District, which participates in the BackPack program.

An estimated 50,390 children in 2012 in Monmouth and Ocean counties were “food insecure,” meaning they don’t have — or don’t know if they will have — access to enough food all of the time, according to Map the Meal Gap, an annual report on hunger put out by Feeding America, a network of the nation’s food banks.

More than 375,000 kids in New Jersey and 15.9 million nationally run the risk of not having enough food, according to the study.

Those numbers are in line with previous years. But at the same time, the Great Recession has been deemed over for several years and the jobless rates nationally have declined.

But the need hasn’t lessened at food charities. Food banks are seeing the same levels of demand as they were during the recession. At the Shore, it’s even worse, because families are still coping financially with the damage from superstorm Sandy and are stretching their budgets with help from local food pantries.

The FoodBank is on pace to distribute more than 9 million pounds of food for the fiscal year ending in June 2014, said Barbara Scholz, director of advocacy and programs at the food bank.

That’s up from 8.2 million pounds of food last year and 7 million pounds of food pre-Sandy. The FoodBank distributed 3 million pounds of food in the year before the recession.

And hunger often hits children disproportionately. About 40 percent of the Jersey Shore’s food insecure population is children.

While adults might be able to earn enough on a low-wage job to feed themselves, it’s a different story for families who are supported by low-wage jobs, Scholz said.

“Those are the families hardest hit by the recession,” she said.

The impact goes far beyond an empty stomach.

Children who go hungry are also more likely be sick more often and recover more slowly, said Wendi Silver, the FoodBank’s special nutrition programs coordinator and a registered dietitian.

Their concentration levels drop while their anxiety goes up, and they are more likely to act out, she said.

Meanwhile, students who start their day with a healthy breakfast attend on average 1.5 days more school and score 17.5 percent higher on standardized math tests than students who don’t, according to No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit group aimed at ending childhood hunger.

Initiatives such as Kids Cafe provide children with hot meals and also bring them into a safe, positive environment where they can get help with homework and encouragement to dream of college and successful careers, said Eagles, the Boys & Girls Club’s executive director.

“You can’t think about those things if their stomachs are growling,” he said.

One of the signs of food insecurity that Tuckerton Elementary School staff see crops up mid-morning in the nurse’s office, where pupils come in with bellyaches.

But often, it’s not the flu or a stomach bug. More than likely, the cause is hunger.

The numbers bear that out. Participation in the free and reduced-cost lunch program at Tuckerton Elementary increased from about the 20 percent range pre-recession to over 40 percent in 2012, said Carol Shimer-Young, the school’s social worker.

“It changes our perspective on what was going on in our community,” she said.

When the opportunity came up for Tuckerton Elementary to join the FoodBank’s BackPack program, the school staff and board members jumped at it, Shimer-Young said.

Tuckerton Elementary started the program in October, tucking packets of meals discreetly into 23 of their students’ backpacks each Friday.

“If kids were hungry and we see that during the week, it’s clear they are probably hungry on the weekends,” she said.

Quantifying the impacts the program has had so far is difficult, but Shimer-Young said she is thankful to the FoodBank that her district can participate.

The extra food for children may mean their families overall have a little bit more disposable income, making them better prepared to pay for food in the summer when students aren’t in school, Shimer-Young said.

In the Keansburg School District, the BackPack program, which served 63 children in preschool through high school, is just as much about helping students succeed as are the district’s efforts to expand technology, overhaul its curriculum and encourage students to pursue college, said Latwis, director of pupil personnel services.

“If you have a kid focused on the fact they’re hungry, they are never going to get to the point where they are engaged in the lesson. They are going to be more concerned about where their next meal is coming from.”