CAMDEN, NJ—Former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant knows how important a nutritious meal can be for growing children.
“I can tell you today that I wouldn’t have made it to the NFL, I wouldn’t have been a good student, if I didn’t have the proper nutrition fueling my body,” Avant said to a crowd of children eating lunch on Thursday.
That is why he, along with celebrity chef Aaron McGargo, city officials, anti-hunger and over 200 local students were gathered at the North Camden Community Center this afternoon to eat lunch and remind the community about the number of the city’s free summer meal programs.
“I'm so happy that I was able to have a summer meals program where I was. We had summer recreation programs where we could go and get nutritious meals,” Avant, who grew up on the southside of Chicago, said.
In Camden, there are over 50 locations where children who are 18 and under can get free meals throughout the summer thanks to programs through the Camden City School District, the city’s Department of Human Services and Recreation, the Food Bank of South Jersey and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.
According to Kimberly Gladis, nutrition program specialist for the NJDA, only one out of 10 children who are eligible for free summer meals actually receive them. That, according to officials, is why it's important to hold events like the on Thursday afternoon to remind the community about the programs.
“It is our obligation to give you a safe haven and give you a well-balanced nutritional lunch,” Mayor Frank Moran said.
The city’s Summer Meals Program is wrapped around its summer recreation program, giving its participants free meals in between playing basketball and learning how to swim. The Food Bank of South Jersey provides free meals at 24 sites throughout the city, said President Joe Njoroge, serving 600 to 800 children.
Most of the city’s schools also continue to serve free lunch throughout the summer, said Acting Superintendent Katrina McCombs.
“We serve hundred of thousands of meals to our students throughout the year. These meals provide the fuel that our students need to learn in the classroom and participate in recreational activities. Just because school is out for the summer, it doesn’t mean we have closed our school doors,” said McCombs.
According to Arlethia Brown, manager of food services for the Camden City School District, the meals come with a balance portion of grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables. Brown said the school district has about 20 locations that can serve anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 children over the summer.
Camden native and celebrity chef Aaron McCargo reminisced about the free meal program when he was growing up, saying he would go camp to camp to get a lunch of thickly sliced bologna sandwich and freezing cold juice.
“That was good eating,” said McCargo. “It made a difference in my attitude, it made a difference in my performance in school and it made a difference in my athletics.”
To find out where you can find free summer meals, text “Summer Meals to 97779, call 1-866-348-6479 or visit www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks. No registration is required to receive a free summer meal.