As soon as lunch ended, a little girl moved quickly to gather up a bag of leftovers: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, oranges, and juice boxes.

Her stash, she stated matter of factly, was for later, when summer camp at Camden Community Charter School in North Camden was over for the day.

"This is so I don't starve when I get home," the 7-year-old with big, soulful brown eyes told a counselor. "Sometimes my mom runs out of food."

She is among thousands of children who participate in a summer meals program, run by the Food Bank of South Jersey, that provides breakfast, lunch, or snacks at schools, summer programs, parks, swimming pools, or anywhere children hang out during the summer.

The program, in its fifth year, targets low-income children in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties. It seeks to fill a void for children who lose their free or reduced-price school meals in the summer and otherwise may go hungry.

"Summer can be the hungriest time of the year for the thousands of kids who rely on school meals," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. "We're hopeful that this summer, more children will receive these nutritious meals, helping them to return to school healthy and ready to learn in September."

Across the region, about 300,000 children lose their meals when school lets out, officials estimate. Many live with food insecurity - lacking access to adequate food because of a dearth of money.

To help fill the nutrition gap, groups like the Food Bank and Philabundance are serving up summer meals in South Jersey and the five Philadelphia-area counties until the new school year begins.

This summer, about 4,000 youngsters in South Jersey will be served about 200,000 meals through the Food Bank. The City of Camden and a few other municipalities also sponsor summer feeding programs for about 6,000 more children.

But the need is greater, says Louis Martelli, a Food Bank spokesman.

Only about one in five or 10,000 of the 50,000 children eligible for summer meals in the four-county South Jersey area are enrolled in a program. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, only about 19 percent of eligible children statewide participate.

"There are a lot of kids not in programs. What's happening to them?" Martelli asked.

Philabundance provides a lunch-box program for children under 18 at eight locations. It also has a traveling farmer's market at those sites that offers free produce to eligible families.

Food Bank volunteers help prepare and deliver meals five days a week to 104 South Jersey sites, for 12 weeks of the summer. The program expanded from 45 sites last year because of the need.

The meals are prepared and packaged at two locations - a commercial kitchen in the old Virtua hospital site in Camden and a Food Bank facility in Pennsauken.

Working in an assembly-line fashion, a handful of volunteers reported to Virtua on Monday morning to begin preparing 2,500 meals. In one day, the program hoped to ready 5,194 meals, including breakfasts and snacks.

"I like knowing that this is going to help somebody. When you have enough to eat, sometimes you get disconnected from the fact that some people don't have enough to eat," said Denise Cyphers, 60, of Mount Laurel, a retired special education teacher who volunteers every Monday.

When a dozen volunteers from the Timber Creek High School football team canceled their shift due to a mandatory practice, Sarah Crowley, a summer meals program associate, moved into high gear to pick up the slack.

The demand for meals must be met, Crowley said. The meals are prepared a day ahead so even on a day with fewer volunteers than expected, the group remains on schedule.

The volunteers worked at stations preparing single servings that included salad topped with diced chicken and dressing, an apple, a bread stick, and milk and juice.

"I do it because I can't bear the thought of any child going hungry," said Alice Levas, 69, of Medford, a real estate agent who worked alongside her husband, John Bigliotti, 72.

About 15.3 million children lived in food-insecure households in 2014, according to Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity.

When meals arrive at the Camden Charter Community School, students are ready to eat promptly at noon. When site director Joey Rodriguez asks if they are ready for lunch, he is met with a loud chorus of "yes."

Third grader Terry Cook, 8, wasn't too happy with the meal - two jelly and peanut butter substitute sandwiches, an orange, apple juice, and chocolate milk. But he said he ate it anyway because "I was so hungry."

Leftovers are placed in a share box for the youngsters to take items home. Students also get a snack later in the afternoon provided by the food bank.

About 70 students, pre-K through seventh graders, are enrolled in a day program - Camp Cause, operated by the Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium at the school.

The meals are crucial to the success of the program because they keep students alert in the classroom, where they are learning about forensic science this year, said Cheronda Frazier, the center's director of community engagement.

"Many of the students would not have meals if it wasn't part of the program," she said. "It's a blessing for sure."

For more information on how to donate or volunteer, visit or In New Jersey, parents can visit for a list of summer meal sponsors at 1,200 sites. Parents don't need to fill out an application or provide identification for their children to receive meals, according to federal rules.

856-779-3814 @mlburney