Filling the gap

To battle child hunger, local backpack program is ...

By William K. Alcorn


Thousands of Mahoning Valley children are getting free lunches at community feeding locations to help fill the summer hunger gap between June and September, when school-based government-subsidized free- and reduced-cost-meals are not available.

In addition, nearly 3,000 children in Columbiana and Mahoning counties are receiving food through the Summer Weekend Backpack Meals Program, created by Gov. John R. Kasich, that earmarked $1 million for the program.

The program is providing a weekend’s worth of meals to more than 10,000 Ohio children for 10 weeks this summer, representing 600,000 meals.

“Child hunger is a serious problem in Ohio, and this additional $1 million could not have come at a better time,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.

Each backpack includes two pre-packed breakfast meals, four pre-packed lunch/dinner meals, and one white milk and one chocolate milk that do not need to be refrigerated. All meals distributed meet federal nutrition guidelines, officials said.

In Ohio, 46 percent of children live in families poor enough to qualify for free- or reduced-price school meals. The percentages for Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties, respectively, are about 29 percent, 27.5 percent and 32.6 percent, said Michael Iberis, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley.

The backpack program is a safety net so that children who may otherwise go without food will have something over the weekend, Iberis said.

The state’s network of food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters served 826,815 children in the last quarter of calendar year 2011, an increase of 17.2 percent over the same quarter in 2009, Hamler-Fugitt said.

Child hunger is a serious problem in the Mahoning Valley that has grown to epidemic proportions in the last five years, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of children living in poverty as defined by U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines and the percentage of children eligible for free- or reduced-price school meals, said Iberis.

“These emergency summer meals are, in many cases, the difference between a child having a sufficient amount of food or going without,” he said.

The lunch program is a huge stop-gap, said Gerald Hamilton, with the Neighborhood Ministries Program in Campbell that operates a lunch program as part of its Summer Day Camp.

About 55 children a day are served at its Roosevelt Park site from noon to 1 p.m. Lunch is open to anyone age 17 and under. It’s free and there are no income requirements, Hamilton said.

The camp offers activities after lunch ranging from kickball and soccer and balloon water fights to anti-bullying ready for school programs.

Once a week, an instructor from the Ohio State University Extension Office talks to the kids about nutrition and how to prepare healthy meals from food they get at food pantries, he said.

In addition to putting some food in the kids’ bellies, it gives teens, some of whom have participated in the lunch program, such as Morgan McMeans and Ashley Roldan, both of Campbell, summer jobs supervising activities.

They work an average of 225 hours over the summer and are paid at the end of the program: $125 to buy clothing and $75 to buy a pair of shoes for school, and $200 in cash, Hamilton said.

Jasmine Jackson of Austintown, who will graduate from Youngstown State University in August with a degree in social work, is completing an internship at the Neighborhood Ministries Summer Camp.

But primarily, it is an opportunity for the kids to get lunch, learn something and have some supervised fun, which is what Michael Washington, 11, Vanessa Wilder, 11, and DeMarcus Smith, 12, said they liked best.

For information, Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley, 2805 Salt Springs Road, Youngstown, is at online or 330-792-5522.

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