No vacation for hunger: Summer food programs feel the heat

Although LeMoyne Community Center served nearly 10,000 meals during its 2013 summer food program, director Joyce Ellis said her group reached only 5 percent of eligible children in Washington County.

“That sent me to a whole other place, knowing there are still 95 percent of kids out there who were starving,” Miss Ellis said.

It’s a similar story for the North Butler Feed My Sheep food pantry and other programs across the country that work to relieve childhood hunger in areas where poverty, limited mobility and federal regulations combine to leave children without lunch in the summer months.

As the number of food-insecure children grows, program directors are looking to new ways — including home gardening, cereal drives and mobile lunch deliveries — to fill in where school meals leave off.

Through an initiative called “Grow A Row,” the Greater Washington County Food Bank is asking local gardeners and farmers to plant one extra row of produce and donate it to the food bank so that the bank can offer the food to pantries and summer food programs. Such gardening initiatives are becoming increasingly popular around the country as a way to feed the hungry.   

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank started its summer food service program in 2009 to partner with local organizations after discovering that summer food sites in the region’s rural counties served less than 10 percent of children who were eligible for free summer lunches. The program provides education on how to become sponsor of a summer food program site and outreach resources to help sponsors connect to children in need.

This year, the food bank will use $62,350 of a $252,950 grant from the Walmart Foundation to sustain its summer food sites and school breakfast programs in Allegheny County. The food bank also will use the funding to continue addressing rural childhood hunger by starting summer food programs in Washington and Indiana counties.

Program sponsors, however, can’t establish a site wherever there are kids in need, as the federal regulations for reimbursement funding require an area concentration of impoverished children.

“It’s more of a struggle to meet the qualifications in the rural areas because things are more spread out,” said Karen Dreyer, director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership, which runs the food bank’s summer program.

Carol Lambert, director of the North Butler Feed My Sheep food pantry in Slippery Rock, oversees four summer food sites that together feed approximately 200 children a summer but do not qualify for reimbursement funding.

To qualify as an open site — which any child can visit  — approved sponsors, such as government agencies, schools or nonprofits, must prove with school district data or census tracking that at least half of the children in the area are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

To qualify as an enrolled site, which receives a lower rate of reimbursement than an open site, sponsors must prove that half of the children enrolled in the program meet the same standards. 

“It’s not as if you want a community to qualify, but you do want them to have access to the resources,” Ms. Dreyer said.

Mrs. Lambert’s program does not meet the open site qualifications but would “never turn a child away” by operating as an enrolled site, she said.

“For some of these children, this is the only meal they get during the day, whether it’s income factor or whether it’s the fact that mom is working and is not there to prepare meals for them,” Mrs. Lambert said.

Ms. Dreyer said the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership welcomes all summer food sites and will provide educational and outreach resources to anyone wishing to set up a new summer food program. 

“Our primary goal is that children don’t go hungry and they get meals, and we are happy to have them as partners, too,” Ms. Dreyer said.

In Allegheny County, 26 government-funded sponsors ran 261 summer food sites that provided 622,071 meals in 2014.

In Indiana County, where approximately 4,400 children were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, about 201 children participated in the summer food program a day.

In Washington County, about 622 out of 10,300 eligible children participated in the summer food program a day.

While sponsors can build more sites to try to reach the remaining children in need, the issue is more complex.

Ms. Dreyer said that a lack of transportation or information on the programs prevents children in need from visiting the sites.

“It’s key for people to know that they can just go to the site and get the meal because the sites have to be in areas where there are a number of low-income children,” Ms. Dreyer said. “No one has to show proof. The verification is done by geography.”

Looking to be more visible and reach children in rural areas, some program directors are trying to hit the road.

Mrs. Lambert said the Feed My Sheep program in Butler County is test-driving a mobile summer food service in which volunteers in pickup trucks and SUVs deliver hot meals to children’s homes.

In Washington County, Miss Ellis said she proposed to the U.S. Agriculture Department in May an initiative to purchase a van that would follow school bus routes and distribute bagged lunches at 20 stops. As the school year draws to an end and the program’s July 15 start date approaches, Miss Ellis is still waiting for government approval of her proposal.

“I just assumed that we would know before summer,” Miss Ellis said. “I’m going to my backup plan.”

Trying to increase her program’s reach from about 200 kids to 550 kids fed a day, Miss Ellis said the center now will visit eight to 10 more sites at playgrounds and mobile home communities where center staff will bring lunch and feed the children as quickly as possible, then pack up and do it again at another site.

That method requires more staffing and, consequently, more training and work, she said.

At Westmoreland County Food Bank, program director Michelle Heller said a high demand for site supervisors limits the number of children the food bank can reach.

The food bank placed an ad online and in local newspapers but did not receive enough responses and will have five fewer sites than last summer.

The Department of Agriculture Summer Food Service Program was established in 1975 and funds site sponsors through state education departments with reimbursements based on the number of meals the sponsors serve. The program fed more than 2.28 million children at 39,000 sites in the summer of 2012, yet most of the nation’s children never came to a site.

At the Greater Washington County Food Bank, which works with the LeMoyne Center and five other summer food programs, donations coordinator Kelly Backo said the food bank relies on its cereal drive to fill in where a summertime lull in donations meets an increased need to feed kids no longer receiving school meals.

Chris West, regional site coordinator at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership, said numbers have risen every year since the partnership began and partnership officials hope to serve 660,000 meals this summer.

To hit this goal, Ms. Dreyer said, Pittsburgh’s programs could always use more volunteers as well as activity kits, jump ropes and educational materials that draw kids to the sites. Miss Ellis credits her center’s educational activities for making it the largest-operating summer food sponsor in Washington county.

Sponsors of summer food programs receive $3.64 per lunch served and $2.07 per breakfast served, meant to cover food and prep costs. Sponsors of rural sites receive more per meal but receive less overall because fewer children frequent their sites.

The sites can also receive reimbursement for gasoline but not for driver costs and vehicle upkeep.

“That’s the Catch-22,” Miss Ellis said.

“At the end of the day, we never come out ahead. The money is the shortfall.”

Danielle Fox: or 412-263-1240. Twitter: @foxddanielle.


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