MONMOUTH COUNTY, NJ — It was mid-December, and students in a class of Monmouth County third-graders were at their home computers doing online learning.
That was when the teacher noticed one of the girls, 9, kept fidgeting. She could not seem to sit still or pay attention. The teacher told her to focus, and the girl abruptly started crying. Her cries turned to sobs; she could not stop crying on the Zoom call.
That was when the girl made a stunning confession, in front of her whole virtual class: She was starving. There wasn’t enough food in her home and she was really, really hungry.
That story was relayed to Patch by Kim Guadagno, the former New Jersey lieutenant governor and Republican gubernatorial candidate, who now runs Fulfill, the food bank of Monmouth and Ocean counties.
“It turns out the girl’s mother lost her job when all the restaurants shut down in March. She hasn’t been able to work since March, and she does not qualify for unemployment or benefits,” Guadagno said. “Can you imagine the trauma this little girl was going through to burst into tears and say this in front of a whole class of her peers?”
The girl’s mother is a single mother, and she is one of three young children in the home.
“If a child is hungry, then typically the whole family is hungry,” said Karla Bardinas, a spokeswoman for Fulfill. “Because what we’ve noticed is that parents will feed their children before they feed themselves.”
Hunger is skyrocketing
Guadagno did not want to reveal which school district this occurred in, as she said the pandemic has caused hunger to skyrocket throughout Monmouth and Ocean counties, often in towns or pockets just a few miles away from million-dollar mansions and beachfront second homes.
“Food scarcity is in Neptune. It’s in Asbury Park, Red Bank, Freehold and sections of Toms River, sections of the outer islands, sections of Stafford Township, parts of Lakewood,” said the former lieutenant governor. “You don’t believe it driving through Monmouth, but it’s here, especially now.”
Since the pandemic started, all New Jersey school districts have been providing take-home breakfast and lunches. It’s unknown if this girl’s mother knew to pick up the meals. It also may simply have not been enough food to feed the family.
A social worker from the girl’s school made a call to Fulfill’s Neptune headquarters that same afternoon. Guadagno said her team is used to hearing sad stories, but this particular incident “broke our hearts. Every single one of our team members sprang into action that day.”
The social worker drove to Fulfill to pick up some of the emergency food boxes it always keeps on hand for situations such as this. Fulfill also paid local Monmouth County restaurants to deliver hot, cooked meals to the family. And the girl’s mother has since been working with Fulfill to qualify the family for food stamps. Even if parents are undocumented, children born in America qualify for the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Fulfill is also working with the mother to find her employment, and will work to secure better housing for those who need it.
“The hardest part of all of this is asking for help,” Guadagno said. “We are desperate to reach families such as this so we can get them the services they need, so they don’t get this far down the road in a crisis.”
Before the pandemic, this little girl would have been in school full time. There, she’d get government-funded breakfast and lunch. For kids who qualified, Fulfill provided a third meal in the afternoon at after-school programs. On Friday afternoons, Fulfill would even quietly place a 5-gallon plastic bag into kids’ backpacks as part of their Backpack Program. It was enough food to last the weekend: cereal, milk, two canned dinners and two canned lunches (think chili or SpaghettiOs).
“It’s just so they’re literally not starving to death by the time they come back to school on Monday,” she said.
Then the pandemic hit. Children stopped going to school. This particular girl’s school district was all virtual for all of 2020, and it was only in 2021 that it resumed a hybrid schedule.
“Pre-pandemic, we worked with teachers to identify the hungry children. In 2019, we had 1,000 kids enrolled in our Backpack Program,” said Guadagno. “Then the pandemic came. I asked my staff to try and find the kids anyway. By September (2020), we had only hit 300. I said, ‘Oh my God, this means we’re missing 700 kids. That’s 700 kids who are not getting enough food.'”
The Long Branch school district, for example, has about 6,000 students total. Ninety-five percent of those — 5,500 students — qualify through SNAP for free breakfast and lunch. At Neptune Middle School, 51 percent of the students qualify.
Guadagno would not opine on whether schools should fully reopen or not. “That’s a very political discussion,” she said. “And there are some parents who are afraid to send their children back right now.”
“But it’s scary the impact this pandemic has had on kids,” she continued. “According to Feeding America, New Jersey has the highest rate of food insecure kids in the region. That’s higher than New York, higher than Pennsylvania. At Fulfill, we’ve seen a 40 percent increase in the number of families looking for food in the pandemic. And we’ve seen a 90 percent increase in food-insecure children in Monmouth and a 64 percent increase in Ocean.”
“We’ve seen more people living in their cars and vans,” Bardinas said. “When they pop open the trunk at our food distribution lines, we can see mattresses. They’ve been sleeping in there.”
Patch reached out to the state Department of Education for comment on the situation, and a spokesperson said it would not publicly discuss issues occurring in specific school districts or with individual students.
Shaheed M. Morris, a department spokesperson, did provide this statement:
“School districts throughout New Jersey are providing meals to students. The New Jersey Department of Education, working with the state Department of Agriculture, affirmed that schools participating in the school lunch and breakfast programs have an obligation to offer meals to students during virtual or remote instruction, and meals must be offered to all children.
“The Department of Education is committed to ensuring districts provide meals to its students so they can receive the proper nourishment for their health and to strive academically in these unprecedented times.”
For the working poor, recovery is not around the corner
For the well-off, a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is clearly in sight, as many become vaccinated and COVID-19 case numbers continue to trend downward. But for the working poor, recovering from the coronavirus pandemic will take two to three more years, Guadagno predicts.
“Most of the people we serve at Fulfill do work. They were working before the shutdown,” she said. “But they have multiple jobs. As things start to open back up in the next year, they’re not getting that second or third job.”
“Children are the ones really feeling the brunt of the pandemic,” she continued. “So kids are home all day, sitting in front of the computer for eight hours; they may or may not even know how to use the computer. And their stomachs are growling so loudly they can’t concentrate.”
How can you help? Guadagno said any donation of food or money is very much appreciated. Fulfill has food donation bins in grocery stories in Monmouth and Ocean, and Guadagno promised that any food put in those boxes “will be used right away.” You can also drop off food right at the back door of Fulfill’s warehouse in Neptune (3300 Route 66, Neptune, NJ 07753) or donate money online here.
No donation is too small, she said. “People don’t realize, but for every dollar given, we can make three meals. So a $20 donation means sixty meals.”