Lakewood, New Jersey, is a family-oriented community that prides itself on its culture of giving, love, and respect. Home to many large families with working parents, the Lakewood community boasts a wide variety of nonprofits and religious organizations to care for youth.
Five of them—Little People Childcare, Kidz Place, Mesivta Ahavas Hatorah d’Lakewood, Congregation Birchas Chaim, and Torah Education of America—recently sought funding through the New Jersey Child Nutrition Fund to better provide for the children they serve through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
“Access to quality day care is extremely important in Lakewood. Without it, parents can’t work enough hours to make ends meet. And these organizations are so fantastic, parents can rest assured their children are being cared for,” said Rochel Stein, a food consultant who helped the organizations pursue the funds.
Among the five organizations are two childcare centers and three high school programs. Each offers incredible service in state-of-the-art facilities to care for children—and each has worked to maintain a focus on healthy food by participating in CACFP. Over 50% of children in Lakewood are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.
“We started our food program three years ago. Prior to that, we had never served food—never even envisioned serving food. So when the opportunity arose to provide meals through CACFP, we weren’t equipped. We only had room for a residential refrigerator, so we were ordering food twice a week, and had no space for food preparation, so everything came prepared,” recalls the director of Little People Childcare, an early childcare center serving 195 children.
Kidz Place Daycare, a childcare center that services over 230 infants and children, faced similar challenges. Limited storage space for food meant too many staff hours spent managing food orders and limited food options.
In 2020, the facilities all faced the added pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did the need for nutritious food increase, but guidelines to ensure safety began to place a strain on resources and support. A last-minute application for funding through NJCNF allowed each facility to identify their greatest equipment needs and goals for food service.
“This funding has proven especially important during the pandemic. Many of our students have endured emotional stress, either by spending too much time at home or in absence of participating in the day-to-day normal school activities. We have found that the added food services, such as generous snacks and more nutritious meals, provide extra excitement and a greater incentive for students to attend in-school classes when possible,” said Tzvi Wolfe of Torah Education of America, a high school that is currently expanding to a larger building.
Awards have helped some of the organizations invest in larger refrigerators that have more space for milk, offer the proper storage for meats and proteins, and allow for fresh fruit over canned fruits. Food warmers have made hot meals possible, and in-house preparation reduces costs.
And, at Torah Education of America, funding helped support architectural fees for a brand new, state-of-the-art facility with a kitchen and dining area that will allow staff to prepare food in-house. Best of all, the youth are enjoying the healthy, diverse, culturally-appropriate meals—and their parents are grateful.
“Parents are delighted with our food program as it takes the pressure off them and ensures their children are getting healthy and nourishing meals each day. Every additional upgrade to the program is clearly appreciated by all the parents,” Yakov Merling of Kidz Place.
But the families aren’t the only ones who benefit. Staff at the organizations have been amazed by the transformation, thanks to the ability to invest in key equipment. Food service is smoother, and the workload is more manageable.
“It’s hard to even imagine that we were able to provide food prior to this grant. It’s made such a difference. I can’t even tell you the number of smiles on the face of the children and staff,” said the director of Little People Childcare.
Upgraded equipment has also allowed the organizations to be innovative in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the meals provided on site, some of the organizations have also chosen to provide grab and go meals to remain conscious of COVID-19 and continue to serve those populations who need it most.
“As the Lakewood community grows, so does our investment in childcare centers and afterschool programming. What this grant does is allow these organizations to increase their level of service to the community, and it’s great to see so many more taking the opportunity to join CACFP and all it can give to the children and families,” said Stein. “The extra funding goes straight to the children, right back into the community, and we are all stronger as a result.”