Plenty of New Jersey school districts have been offering free meals to families during the coronavirus pandemic, but a new report suggests many kids aren't actually getting their hands on this food.

According to data from the Food Research & Action Center, the number of free and low-cost school lunches served to New Jersey children, as well as the number of children served, plummeted 51% from April 2019 to April 2020. Breakfast participation dropped 36% during that time frame.

"We definitely expected the number of meals and kids served would go down, but not that much — that's a huge drop," said Nancy Parello, communications director for Hunger Free New Jersey.

Districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program are required to provide meals in some way while schools are closed or limited during the pandemic. Schools have the option to deliver meals directly to homes, as well as provide meals at pick-up or drive-through locations. But, according to the advocacy organization, a number of barriers are keeping participation low — such as transportation issues and lack of awareness.

According to FRAC's report, close to 82% of districts nationwide are distributing meals through "grab and go" or curbside methods.

"For this method of distribution to work, it has to be available at various times to accommodate the schedules of working parents," said Hunger Free New Jersey Director Adele LaTourette. "We are hearing that many districts are only offering meals twice a week in the morning hours. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for working parents to pick up meals for their children."

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Districts receive federal reimbursement for meals that are distributed to children.

Hunger Free New Jersey is also calling on the state to distribute a new round of Pandemic EBT, which provides funds directly to families to buy food.

"Good nutrition is as important to our students' academic achievement as internet access and laptops during remote learning," LaTourette said. "Hungry kids struggle to learn. The funds are there to feed our children. We need to get more creative in how we are doing it."

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