Local Programs Offer Free Meals for Kids

Joyce Walker’s 2-year-old daughter is one of the 54,000 children in Lucas County, ages 1 to 18, eligible for free or reduced-price lunches throughout the year. Walker says she’s grateful to Summer Meal Partners, a coalition of agencies helping to make sure children eat during the summer break and raising awareness of the meals program among people who can use the help. The Summer Food Service Program was established by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to fill the gap when children are not in school.

However, Walker says, “Before this summer, few people knew their children could get meals when they weren’t in school. Now, there are more sites and there is more awareness. It’s working,”

Summer Meal Partners spokesperson Wendi Huntley, northwest regional director for Children’s Hunger Alliance, agrees with Walker that the coalition is raising awareness in the community. She also says it was about time.

“Before we had our kick-off in May, of the 54,000 children who qualify for the program, just 8 percent of those receiving subsidized lunches during the school year were receiving lunches during the summer, though there were at least 80 sites providing them,” Huntley says. “The No. 1 barrier to children receiving the meals was awareness. The partners are collaborating to alleviate hunger by increasing the number of meals provided and to get a unified message out to families eligible to receive them.”

To raise awareness, Summer Meal Partners, which includes nearly 30 local organizations, including ProMedica, kicked off with a press conference in May; printed 30,000 fliers to distribute throughout the community; initiated campaigns on Twitter and Facebook and were successful in having about 20 news stories about the meals program shared through print, TV and radio, Huntley says.

Today, there are 116 (30 more than last year) sites providing meals to children who qualify for them. “We will track our progress at the end of the summer when we get data, but we set a goal to increase by 10 percent the number of meals being served to children during the summer,” Huntley says.

Joyce Summer Meals
Joyce Walker with her daughter at the Summer Meal Partners kick-off event.

Walker’s daughter receives her meals from the program offered at Garfield Elementary School. “There is always a variety of foods, including sandwiches, peaches, plums, carrots, broccoli and juice and milk,” Walker says. The program follows the USDA’s nutrition requirements.

Walker also works for the program at Garfield Elementary, helping set up for lunches and assisting the children. “We serve lunch from 12 to 12:30 p.m. and then start the activities. Right now, each day after lunch, the children practice for a talent show that will take place at the end of the summer,” she explains.

Huntley says the coalition is encouraged by the increase in the number of children receiving meals. “We know that food insecurity can result in health, mental and behavioral problems. Our goal is to fight childhood hunger. So far, it looks like we’re making some progress.”

Parents interested in participating in the summer meals program may call United Way at 2-1-1.

Does your child participate in a summer meal program? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.