Some Ohio counties do not have a summer feeding program.
By MICHELE C. HLADIK
COLUMBUS -- Summer food programs are once again filling summertime gaps and filling bellies for hungry children throughout Ohio.
While the state's summer food programs continue to grow in numbers, there are still gaps that need to be filled, according to supporters.
The breakfast and lunch meals, which are funded through the United States Department of Agriculture, administered by the Ohio Department of Education, promoted by the Ohio Children's Hunger Alliance and distributed by local communities, are touted as a good way to fill the physical and emotional needs of hungry Ohio children during the summer months when school is not in session.
"Kids are hungry every day," said Dianne Radigan, chief operating officer for the Ohio branch of the Children's Hunger Alliance. "We don't stop being hungry when the school bell rings or because it's summer."
Filling their needs
Radigan said the meals not only positively affect the child's physical health and ability to learn but also fill emotional needs.
"It makes a difference in that awful feeling of hunger and wondering if there is any food at home," Radigan said. "That stays with them for a lifetime."
She said the meals are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and must include a container of milk in addition to servings of fruits and vegetables, proteins and breads.
Whether the meals are hot or cold depends on where the meals are served.
Parents also can benefit from the program, Radigan said.
"It provides them with a tremendous reassurance," she said. "They can then take care of the evening meals and stretch their dollars further. I think that it would be the most devastating feeling to know you don't have the nutritional food for your kids to eat."
Radigan said the program already has seen a growth in the number of sites open since 2005.
Room to improve
Despite the increasing popularity of the program, however, there is still a lot of room for growth and improvement, she added.
"We only reach a small percentage of Ohio students," Radigan said. She said her group tries each year to figure out where there are gaps in the program.
Radigan said 474,452 Ohio pupils qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches during the 2004-05 school year and only 50,675 meals were served during the 2005 summer.
"The money for the food is there," she said. "The hard part is finding places in the summer to open their doors."
Rural areas face the biggest challenges with summer food programs because it can be difficult for pupils to get to the sites for meals and homes are more spread out.
"In urban areas, kids can walk to the sites," Radigan said.
She said most counties participate, but there are a few with no summer programs.
"We need to get the kids to the table," Radigan said. "We shouldn't have whole counties without sites. We need to have local communities open their doors."
Adding new sites
Radigan is quick to point out new program sites are being added throughout the summer.
She said once the doors are open and the sites are approved, information can be distributed to families through school and through Medicaid mailings.
Program supporters said all kids are welcome to the meals even though sites are usually chosen based on where the need is, and many sites are those where at least 50 percent of the pupils qualify for free or reduced-price meals during the school year.
While some program administrators worry about the kids feeling labeled as being poor and needy, all agree the program can benefit all children. In many places applications are not required to receive the free meals.
"I think the stigma is not so great during the summer," Radigan said.
Despite only reaching a portion of hungry kids, Radigan said she hopes the summer food programs will continue to expand each year.