Gottheimer Sounds Alarm on Heightened Food Insecurity During Pandemic, Announces Action to Address School Meals Access Issues in Montague Township
Will Assess Food Insecurity Town-by-Town
NEWTON, NJ — On November 19, 2020, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer 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.
Yesterday afternoon, Gottheimer sent a recorded message to Montague families and parents 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.
Watch this week’s announcement HERE.
A copy of the letter is available HERE, the text of which is provided below.
Mr. Timothy Capone
Montague Township School District
475 Rt. 206
Montague, NJ 07827
Dear Superintendent 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.
Countless studies show that children who receive nutritious and balanced meals are healthier, more focused in school, and perform better in the classroom. According to the National Institutes of Health, students who are hungry show poorer results in verbal fluency, arithmetic, tests of attention, memory, creativity, physical endurance, and general tests of academic achievement and cognitive functioning. Unfortunately, food insecurity is rising throughout the state and country as unemployment rates increase and small businesses close. With nearly a tenth of youth already living below the poverty line in Montague, it is reasonable to believe that need for a school meals program exists in the School District.
Congress acted months ago to address the increased demand for free and reduced-price meals during the pandemic by passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (P.L.116-136), which included $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs and waivers to provide schools more flexibility in distributing meals. This includes the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, both of which substantially subsidize meals that schools serve to students. Additionally, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has extended its Seamless Summer Option through June 30, 2021. This program allows schools to receive full federal reimbursement for all meals served; in other words, our local community will not have to pay one cent for this program.
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. We are relieved that the Montague Township School District is finally utilizing the extension of the Seamless Summer Option, two months after the school year began. Unfortunately, on the first day of the program, the School District ran out of meals before serving every family. 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. This is simply unacceptable.
For the sake of our children and families, the School District must improve the effectiveness of this program. Please provide a detailed response of changes you intend to or have implemented to ensure access to these meals for all of the children and families who need them in Montague. Also, please advise us on your long-term school lunch and breakfast plans for Montague children. In the meantime, Congressman Gottheimer’s office will be available to connect families with the resources they need. We look forward to your response.