Lawmakers, food bank and school representatives and other stakeholders met in Grove City this week to discuss ways to increase participation in the summer food service program, which provides meals to children from low-income families.
They say only a fraction of eligible Ohio children who get free or reduced-price lunches during the school year participate in the federally funded program. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.
Over 840,000 school-aged children – 44% of those enrolled in public and private schools around Ohio – are eligible for a free or reduced price school lunch or breakfast program. Not all of them get free or lower priced food. But Lisa Hamler-Fugitt with the Ohio Association of Food Banks says in some parts of the state, nearly all the kids are in those school food programs.
“We’ve got a lot of districts, especially at the elementary level, where nearly seven out of ten are currently receiving a free or reduced-price meal.”
But last summer when school was out for summer, 1 in 10 of those kids got the breakfasts or lunches they received during the school year. Activists are now working on the reasons why 90% of kids who could get that free food in the summer aren’t getting it. Hamlar-Fugitt says Ohio’s food pantries and soup kitchens served over 850,000 children last summer.
“If we don’t have a summer program in those communities, then they’re turning more frequently to the emergency food assistance network, and we don’t have it.”
Marion’s food service program is considered a success. Last year’s program was set up at 16 different sites and served 1,200 kids a day. That’s about 35% of the eligible children – and that number was double the previous year’s. Winnie Brewer with the Marion City Schools says this year’s challenge is to get more community partnerships for activities, which aren’t paid for by federal dollars – and to make sure those kids know about them.
“Sometimes they think, oh, you know, that’s just for – whatever, you know – maybe a lower income or whatever. But it’s not. So when they see different opportunities there, and they see activities going on, then it becomes ok to go to these, especially for the older teens.”
But in some counties, 35% isn’t a successful number – because there are so many children to reach. Over 90% of kids in Jackson County are eligible for school food programs. Susan Rogers directs RSVP of the Ohio Valley which covers eight counties with widespread poverty and serious transportation challenges – there’s no public transit and many families have only one car. Last year the summer food program served 1,500 kids in two of those counties and a few in a third county. This year they’re adding a fourth county with food service sites, and are continuing to deliver hundreds of boxes with a week’s worth of food to churches, grange halls and other places that are more accessible to rural families who can’t always get to the same place every day. And Rogers says they’ve been running into another obstacle.
“We have a lot of folks that say, ‘that’s kind of charity and I really don’t want that charity’, and helping them to understand that this is something that is provided for the benefit of the kids and it’s not that handout. I think they’re afraid that it’ll be seen that they can’t take care of their kids.”
On the opposite end of the economic scale is Medina County. Sandy Calvert is with the two-person crew that comprises Feeding Medina County, which boasts 300 volunteers, one of whom is her husband, former Republican Rep. Chuck Calvert. Calvert says her group is serving 460 kids a week at 12 elementary schools with bags of food sent home on Friday afternoons. Calvert says Medina County has the largest gap between the top and bottom level income earners, and residents are realizing that.
“So that stigma isn’t there. We’ve really tried to educate people that it is their friends and neighbors who’ve found themselves in either a situational poverty issue or, that it isn’t always just generational.”
Calvert says last year she set up a summer food program with local funding to avoid some of the federal government’s rules, which she found overwhelming. But activists say they need to start setting up those programs – with the federal government’s help or not – now, especially since many counties have only a single or a few summer food service sites. And 13 counties in Ohio - some of them among the state’s poorest - don’t have a single summer food service program.