Community Group Teams Up To Give Kids Free Summer Lunches

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A group of kids cheered after lining up for lunch in Haydenville—a small city in southeast Ohio. On this particular day, they get a slice of pizza along with some fruit as part of a free lunch program in their community.

There are about 1,700 of these summer lunch programs around the state.

“We need to make sure that their bodies and their minds are getting the nutrients that they need to grow and thrive,” said Lisa Hamler-Fuggit, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

She said these summer programs are growing but there’s still a need out there, which would help kids when they return to class.

“Because they pay for it when these kids get back in school in the fall. They often have compromised health because they haven’t been eating properly during the summer months,” Hamler-Fuggit said.

The kids in Haydenville are served by the Southeast Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen, a division of the Hocking Athens Perry Community Action Group. The food bank serves 10 counties with 32 summer lunch locations.

Katie Schmitzer is director of the food bank. Last summer, she says, her group had a hand in serving 23,000 meals. This year they hope to go higher with the help of more locations.

“I think in the long run it sets them up for a better education,” she said. “That lag that the teachers talk about from the end of summer to October when they get the kids back on the page they need to be—hopefully it minimizes that and the first day of school they’re ready to learn back at the level they were when they left school.”

After wrapping things up in Haydenville, I took a short drive to Nelsonville where the library was also serving a large group of kids. The Nelsonville location is a branch of the Athens County Public Libraries which has been serving summer lunches since 1986.

Amy King is the coordinator of enrichment and outreach for the libraries. She said it can be difficult to build participation at first.

 “It picks up over the summer as word gets out,” King said. “I think the hardest thing is that a lot of the families that rely on free lunch aren’t really good schedulers or planners and so it takes them awhile to get them into the routine of this is when it starts, this is when it ends, come in that window. But once they figure that out they’re mostly regular participants.”

King adds that having this program at the library means they can incorporate educational activities before and after the meals.

On Friday’s the kids also receive what’s known as a “weekend backpack.” This is a program supported through executive order from Gov. John Kasich. As Hamler-Fugitt explained, the bags are full of food that can be sent home with the kids so they can have something to eat on Saturdays and Sundays.

“I mean kids don’t eat five days a week—they don’t eat two days a week—they eat three meals—they have to eat three meals at least seven days a week and we know with the backpack programs they’re getting those additional six meals during the weekend,” Hamler-Fuggit said.

While the weekday meals are reimbursed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the weekend backpacks must be funded by the state. The USDA has strict rules on the meals which includes banning the removal of food from the designated locations. Hamler-Fugitt said this is one of several reasons why the USDA rules need to be revised.