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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Parks counselor Dyraeshia Bowen, left, keeps an eye on the kids as they enjoy their free lunch at the Cooper Center in Reservoir Park.

Free summer meal programs want to feed more students

The Journal Gazette

– Many of the Cooper Center’s regulars were out on field trips, but the 16 kids who came to the center June 11 were served a healthy lunch delivered by Fort Wayne Community Schools.

Most children ate their hard-boiled egg, raisins and peanut butter graham cracker sandwich and drank their chocolate milk, but some of the vegetable servings, including pea pods and cucumber slices, ended up in the trash.

The meal was free for the kids and any other children who would have come to the center for lunch or snack, served daily, said Lawrence Kennedy, site director for the center at Creighton Avenue and Lafayette Street.

On a typical summer day, the Cooper Center serves free lunches and afternoon snacks to about 60 kids, all younger than 18. The site is one of 30 in the community that serves at least one meal and a snack Monday through Friday while students are out of school for the summer. An additional nine FWCS schools also serve as summer lunch program sites.

During the past school year, more than 510,000 Hoosier children received free- or reduced-price lunch and breakfast at school, but fewer than one in eight will take advantage of summer meal programs, which serve healthy meals at sites throughout the state.

While the number of children participating in summer meal programs has increased 35 percent in the past five years, the majority are still not getting the nutritious meals they can take advantage of when school is in session. Child hunger can have negative effects on the growth and development of children’s minds and bodies, causing them to be ill prepared for school in the fall and decrease the amount they learn throughout the year.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program that operates in more than 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools. Participating schools get cash subsidies and U.S. Department of Agriculture foods for each meal they serve. Schools are required to follow certain guidelines to make meals healthier. In 2011, the program cost about $11.1 billion, according to the program’s website.

In the past five years, the number of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches has risen across the state, increasing from 42 percent in the 2008-09 school year to 49 percent last school year. During the 2012-13 school year, about 510,000 students ate lunch, and sometimes breakfast and a snack, for free or at a low cost at school, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

But when school lets out for the summer, data show these students are not taking advantage of summer meal programs at a similar rate. About 12 percent of the Hoosier kids qualifying for free-and reduced-price lunches were served at least one free meal at a participating site last summer, according to an annual survey by the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit working to eliminate hunger and under-nutrition in the U.S.

Indiana Youth Institute President and CEO Bill Stanczykiewicz said summer hunger is more hidden but is still a growing issue across the state. Community Harvest Food Bank also operates a site locally at the Euell Wilson Center, as well as a site in Ligonier and in Ashley.

“We are viewed as the hunger experts, and rightfully so, in northeast Indiana,” Jane Avery, executive director, said of the organization’s operation of summer food sites. “Our concern always is that kids and seniors … have a good, constant access to food.”

While poverty is more often associated with urban areas, Avery said hunger, particularly in the summer, has a significant effect on children in rural areas because summer food sites are more scarce. If their parents work during the day, children may not be able to get to a site, she said. These parents who may also be struggling with higher gas prices in the summer are also responsible for providing additional meals for kids who are at home when school is out, Avery said.

Erica Martinez didn’t hear about the summer food program until this year but has been bringing her son, nephews and niece regularly to the site at the Hessan Cassel branch of the Allen County Public Library. It’s convenient for the group to stay for the noon lunch after they attend a 10:30 a.m. activity at the library, Martinez said.

The location is also convenient and close to home for Majorie Houston, who watches her four grandchildren, ages 4 to 9, every day over the summer.

“To prepare lunch for four kids every day, … it’s easier to come here,” Houston said. “I want to make sure they have one balanced meal a day.”

“They have things they like,” she continued. “It’s probably pretty similar to what they’re used to eating every day at school.”

A report by Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity, says hungry children face health, educational and job-readiness problems.

According to the report, chronic malnutrition harms cognitive development in children up to age 3, when the brain is growing the fastest, and can have harmful, long-term effects. Hungry children also have more social and behavioral problems because they feel bad and have less energy for complex social interactions, among other issues.

Hunger is the first domino in a line of challenges faced by low-income students, Stanczykiewicz said. Hunger makes learning and staying healthy harder, prevents medications from working correctly and creates behavioral and anxiety problems for children.

“It’s a workforce development issue,” Stanczykiewicz said.

The Feeding America report says that workers who experienced hunger as children create a workforce pool that is less competitive and with lower levels of education and technical skills.

“It’s a reminder to all of us to buy that extra bag of groceries if we can. It will make a difference to those families,” Stanczykiewicz said.

Often people are in a particularly giving mood around the holidays, donating turkeys and canned goods for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but Stanczykiewicz and Avery both stressed the increased needs of families over the summer.

Avery said Community Harvest and smaller food pantries experience increased demand in the summer. She suggests taking advantage of buy-one-get-one deals and donating the free item. Another option is to surrender abundant garden harvests to Community Harvest or other pantries that accept fresh produce.

“Instead of taking another bag of tomatoes into the office, bring them here,” Avery said. “Those tomatoes won’t last 10 minutes here.”