Gov. Chris Christie called for a longer school day in his January State of the State address. The academic after-school program or clubs is provided in Atlantic City Superintendent Donna Haye's district and it includes three meals – breakfast, lunch and now, dinner.
Expanded as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the free dinner program is subsidized by the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture's At-Risk After School Meal Program. With at least 50% of students eligible for the federal free or reduced-fee lunch program, the program is open to any non-profit organization or school district. According to USDA data, the sponsor gets a subsidy of about $2.85 per dinner. Nothing is paid by the participating students.
As Diane D'amico of Press of Atlantic City reports, Atlantic City, Wildwood, Camden and Newark are the only four school districts that offer a dinner program statewide. Including the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City, a number of non-profit groups also participate in the program. Nonetheless, there have been efforts to lure more school districts or other sponsors for the dinner program according to Diane Genco, executive director of the New Jersey School Age Care Coalition, a network for after-school programs. However, the application process and paperwork are so cumbersome it discourages groups from applying to the state Department of Agriculture.
Serving about 75 meals daily to students in their 21st Century Community Learning Center after-school program, Wildwood began its program in 2013. This year the daily average is between 90 and 110 meals daily to students in grades four through nine. Chartwells, the district's food-service provider prepares the meals which are served around 5 p.m.
"We are always looking for ways to improve the lives and learning of our students," said Josepha Penrose, supervisor of curriculum and instruction, who noted that well over 80 percent of the children in Wildwood are eligible for the federal free-lunch program.
Starting with four schools, Atlantic City began the program in 2013 too. This year, all 12 schools participate, serving an average 2,000 students per day, almost a third of all students. Serving more than 600 students daily, the two largest programs are the MLK and Sovereign Avenue schools. After realizing how many students needed the extra meal, Haye said they expanded the program district-wide.
"We just didn't realize how hungry the kids are," said Haye, who said participation in the academic after-school program increased 40 percent when dinner was added.
Allowing districts to use their school-lunch program software to run the dinner program, rather than requiring a separate paper application is what NJSACC would like the state to do. Withal, it's hard to find sponsors who can pay the upfront costs until the reimbursements start coming in as Genco put it. If school districts sponsored the program, other nonprofits in the district could also participate, she said.
"We are trying to get the word out," she said. "There are many districts that could do this and get federal reimbursement. It's very frustrating."
Last year they did get hot meals through the Atlantic City School District, but the logistics and manpower required proved too difficult according to the executive director of the Atlantic City Boys and Girls Club, Mekos Denson. Typically including a sandwich, fruit, side dish, and milk, this year they do a packaged cold meal. At both sites in the city, they serve about 300 meals a day. In addition, they started the program because the children were hungry as Denson put it.
"Some of them are here from 3 to 9 p.m." he said. "We wanted to have a meal for them."