Thursday, Nov 27, 2014

Summer food programs vital for low-income children


Published:   |   Updated: June 20, 2013 at 06:22 PM

ST. PETERSBURG - Children flood into the Harbordale YMCA's gym-turned-cafeteria at noon to grab a free lunch five days a week during the summer.

As many as 150 have crowded into the space for the free lunch, which is provided through the Y's Summer Food Program.

Children enrolled in Harbordale's summer day camp - 104 this year - receive free lunch and breakfast, but anyone 18 and younger can receive a free meal.

Summertime can pose a nutritional issue for low-income children who might receive their only nutritious meals of the day at school, which provide free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch.

"Parents don't magically have extra money for food" in the summer, said Elena Stowers, executive director at the Harbordale Y on Fourth Street South.

On a recent day, students enjoyed a lunch with turkey sandwiches, grapes, orange juice and milk. Breakfast includes foods such as Raisin Bran, Cheerios, yogurt, fruit and juice.

Harbordale has programs throughout the year to help children whose families struggle with money, but during the summer it adds special programs to make sure they have access to free breakfast, lunch and snacks.

The Y does what it can to help, but the problem is widespread. In Pinellas County, 55,578 kids were eligible for the free or reduced-price meal program during the 2012-13 school year. In Hillsborough County, 115,216 were.

The Y's Summer Food Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services administers the program, which provides kids 18 and younger with free meals at schools, parks, recreation centers, YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs throughout Florida.

All sites offer lunch, and some offer breakfast and snacks. Some sites feed children enrolled in their summer camps, but other "open sites," which are located in areas where at least 50 percent of children are enrolled in the free or reduced-price meal program, are open to any kids who can come.

There are 127 sites in Pinellas County and 198 in Hillsborough.

Pinellas County Schools is also offering free lunches and breakfasts to thousands of students enrolled in its Summer Bridge program, which targets underperforming students, many of whom come from low-income neighborhoods.

To help families that can't travel to an open site, the Hillsborough County school district sends school buses to deliver breakfast and lunch to eight communities in Dover, Plant City and Wimauma. Last year, buses delivered to only four locations.

"It's our mission to provide healthy meals for children throughout the year - not just during the regular school year," said Ginain Grayes, a spokeswoman for the school district's nutrition program.

"They also have those needs throughout the summer, and we take that very seriously."

The Hillsborough school district served about 7,600 lunches per day and 5,400 breakfasts at its open sites last summer.

Hillsborough County also helps provide meals for kids 18 and younger through its USDA-funded Summer Food Program for Children.

While some of the kids still cut out magazine pictures of cupcakes to glue onto their "fruit and veggie placemats," they also devour the grapes and turkey sandwiches provided by the Y.

"My auntie set me up with this camp," Alexandra Bray, 6, said. "I like the food."

To find an open site near you, go to www.summerfoodflorida.org or call 2-1-1.

sdrumm@tampatrib.com

Twitter: @saradrumm

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