School break poses challenge for hungry in Allegheny County

Sponsors step up to plate with summer nutrition programs

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The end of school can mark the beginning of hunger for thousands of local children.

For the nearly 50,000 public school students in Allegheny County who ate free lunches at school this year, summer ends the steady meals provided through the National School Lunch Program, designed to keep children from low-income families out of hunger.

"Food stamps aren't enough to get families through the month, and that's particularly true in the summer," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

A recent report from FRAC showed that in Pennsylvania only 18.7 percent of students who received meals during the school year were reached by summer nutrition programs last summer.

If those numbers hold this summer, more than 40,000 children in Allegheny County could be facing months of less nutritious meals, smaller meals or simply no meals at all.

Federal, state and local governments are teaming up with nonprofits to get meals to students.

In the federally funded Summer Food Service Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture relies on state agencies -- in Pennsylvania, the Department of Education -- to find sponsors in low-income areas to register as food providers.

The sponsors -- typically nonprofit agencies but also local governments and school districts -- must find sites at which to provide the daily meals. Sponsors can hire a vendor, but most prepare the meals themselves.

The sponsors are reimbursed through the state at a rate of about $3.50 per lunch served, and about $2 per breakfast served.

Pennsylvania received $13.95 million in federal money for the 2013 summer program, which served an average of 96,000 children a day.

That's a fraction of the more than 650,000 Pennsylvania students who received daily free lunches at school during the 2013-14 school year.

Because of the operating costs of programs, sponsors can be difficult to come by, said Sally Petrilli, director of the Summer Nutrition Programs for Allegheny County.

The county sponsored 78 sites last year, serving 137,600 meals throughout the summer. This summer, the county is sponsoring 81 sites, with the potential for a few more.

"Most of the school districts used to do this in the summer, but they can't afford it," Ms. Petrilli said. "We've had to take over for quite a few of the districts."

The problem is that the sponsors are reimbursed for meals provided to children, not meals prepared, she explained.

Because of the reach of Allegheny County's program, food preparation is outsourced to a vendor based on a competitive bid for the contract every three years. Under the current contract, Allegheny County pays Nutrition Group of Irwin for the meals it prepares.

If, for example, the county pays for 4,000 meals on one day but only 3,000 children show up, the federal program covers only the cost of 3,000 meals.

"We just hope we don't lose too much money," Ms. Petrilli said. "That's why there aren't any more sponsors. It's an expensive proposition, and you lose money."

Allegheny County lost more than $10,000 on its program last summer.

A greater reimbursement rate would allow for more sites to operate and ease the burden on volunteers who oversee the sites for four hours a day, five days a week, she said.

Pittsburgh is among school districts continuing to sponsor their own programs.

During the school year, free breakfast is offered to all Pittsburgh Public Schools students, and about 18,000 out of a total enrollment of almost 25,000 students receive free lunch.

Pittsburgh Public Schools partners with the city Department of Parks and Recreation to serve free breakfast and lunch at about 75 sites throughout the city Mondays through Fridays, during the summer.

Last summer, about 2,138 children received meals each day, according to Carly Walker, who is the program coordinator for the parks department.

The district's food services prepare the meals, and the parks department is the sponsor. Any cost overruns come out of the city's summer food trust fund, she said.

"We try to reach as many kids as we can," Ms. Walker said.

Posters in schools advertise the program, and a hotline phone number gives specific locations.

"The main goal of our program is to make sure that every kid who needs a meal is getting one, she said."

For some children, it is the only meal of the day.

Ms. Walker said finding sites can be difficult because some local organizations are wary of the logistical hassle of coordinating volunteers and a clean, safe space to provide the meals.

Nonetheless, local nonprofits play a vital role. Boys & Girls Clubs throughout the region conduct summer programs that include free meals, such as the one in Duquesne that Pat Bluett directs.

"We need more sites to open throughout the community," she said recently over the din of children playing at the after-school program. "There's a great need in the community."

Her program serves 75 to 80 kids a day during the summer, the same number attending after-school programs during the year, she said.

Nate, a sixth-grader in Duquesne, is one of the students who attends after-school and returns in the summer.

"We get cold lunches after we play outside for an hour," said Nate, describing the summer routine.

"It's better" than the school food, he said. "It's very healthy."

When asked what students who don't attend such programs do for lunch during the summer, Alyssa, an eighth-grader, had a brief answer: "Oodles of noodles."

The Allegheny County program runs from today through Aug. 15.

The Pittsburgh program begins June 16 and operates through Aug. 15.

Parents and students can find a program site by calling a hotline at 211.

Matt Nussbaum: or 412-263-1504.

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