Nutritious Food Connections

Access to healthy food is widely desired in Toms River. All age ranges, including high school survey participants, expressed a keen interest in having healthier food options. The coalition will be focusing on the following:

(1) Increasing the return rate of Free and Reduced Priced Lunch (FRPL) applications within the school district. School meals are important to ensure that students receive proper nutrition. Not only do school meals help reduce hunger, but they also increase students’ ability to learn. Free and Reduced data related to school meals is also used to qualify schools and their surrounding areas for federally funded nutrition programs both during and outside of school time (i.e. breakfast, after school snack and dinner, summer feeding programs). In order for students to qualify for free lunches, the children must reside in a household with an income at or below 130 percent of poverty. To qualify for reduced-price lunch, the children must reside in a household with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of poverty.

In 2016-17, 15,934 students were enrolled in the Toms River school district. Of the total enrollment, 3,888 students (24.4%) were enrolled for free lunch and 718 students (4.5%) for reduced lunch.16 Only two elementary schools have 50% or more of their students enrolled in the FRPL program. This benchmark automatically qualifies the school for additional supplemental meals (i.e. after school snacks and dinner). There are four elementary schools in the 30-40% range. This group will investigate whether these targeted schools would cross the 50% threshold with a concerted application submission campaign.

In addition, the number of students eligible for free breakfast and actually taking advantage of the program is extremely low in the county. In fact, only 26% of eligible students are being served breakfast.

# of Students Eligible for Free/Reduced-Price Breakfast Eligible Students as % of Total Enrollment % Eligible Students Served Breakfast # Eligible Students NOT Receiving Breakfast Total Possible Federal Reimbursement
4,517 29 26 3,324 $990,195

Source: Advocates for Children of NJ, School Breakfast District Participation by County 2017

(2) Increasing the community’s access to nutritious food options. The coalition will focus on addressing the issue of access to nutritious food options with the food insecure through two methods: food insecurity screenings/nutrition prescriptions and community gardens.

Decades of research showcase a correlation between food insecurity and health. People who face food insecurity have higher instances of disease such as diabetes and high blood pressure. For children, the implications are even more severe. There are physical and mental effects, as well as academic achievement issues and potential future economic issues.17 The coalition will work with physicians to implement food insecurity screenings in both clinical and community settings. The physicians and community organizations will then distribute nutrition prescriptions that connect patients and their families to federal nutrition programs and other community food resources, i.e. food pantries and community gardens.

Community gardens will be piloted at locations throughout Toms River in an effort to increase access to healthy fruits and vegetables. Community gardens are also known to increase knowledge of food, nutrition, agriculture, and environmental sustainability, as well as engage community members in physical activity and skill building. The Nutritious Food Connections HIT will work with a local church and elementary school to pilot two community gardens. Based on measurable outcomes, additional gardens may be added in years three and four of the grant.