Free lunch hungry for more takers

Officials say many parents don't know about the summer program that feeds kids for free.

Published June 16, 2007

Shatoya Jenkins lays awake some nights wondering how she'll make ends meet.

A high-risk pregnancy has kept the single mother of twin girls out of work for six months. She's not sure when she'll be able to return to her job as a certified nursing assistant. Meanwhile, the bills keep piling up.

But one thing Jenkins doesn't have to worry about this summer is providing nutritious lunches and snacks for 6-year-olds Shamiyah and Shaniyah. That's because the girls are enrolled in a YMCA program at Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg that serves free meals to children who live in low-income neighborhoods.

"It means a lot," said Jenkins, 21. "The girls come home every day and tell me what they had to eat."

Though many parents depend on the National School Lunch Program from August through May, many don't realize that the U.S. Agriculture Department also provides the Summer Food Service Program for Children.

And even fewer families know that all children in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools and recreation centers that offer the meals are eligible for them, not just those attending extended learning, voluntary prekindergarten or YMCA programs.

While more than 900,000 Florida children in prekindergarten through high school eat free or discounted meals during the school year, fewer than 160,000 take advantage of the free meals during the summer, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a national organization that works to eradicate hunger.

Local school officials and children's advocates say they wish more parents knew about the Summer Food Service Program.

"We hear so often that school lunches are the only nutritious meals kids on free and reduced-price lunch get during the school year," said Carol McKinney, who works with the Pinellas County Department of Health and Human Services. "With this program, they can continue to get those meals."

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Hillsborough County children 18 and under can receive free meals this summer at 88 schools. In Pinellas, the program operates in more than 70 schools and recreation centers. Sponsors have the option of serving hot or cold meals, but all food must meet Agriculture Department guidelines, said Tom Butler of the Florida Education Department.

Close to 5,000 meals are prepared daily for Pinellas children in the cafeteria at Dixie Hollins High School. District food service employees arrive each morning at 8:30 and begin assembling lunches consisting of a sandwich, juice, milk, and a piece of fruit or a container of applesauce.

It takes a dozen workers 14 minutes to load a pallet with 300 meals. The meals are then boxed and loaded into refrigerated trucks that deliver them to the schools and recreation centers.

At some schools, including Campbell Park, food service workers prepare and serve meals in their own kitchens through the summer.

Most of the meals are consumed by children enrolled in summer programs, although neighborhood children occasionally come to some sites, said Cathy Starman, a field specialist with Pinellas County Schools Food Services.

"We've never had huge numbers," Starman said. "It's never been the thousands we'd like it to be."

Gulfport Elementary principal Lisa Grant said the school does its best to spread the word about the summer food program to parents through newsletters and fliers. Last year, Grant said, she had planned to open the library so the kids who came for lunch could stay to read a book.

She had no takers.

Ken MacKenzie, principal at Starkey Elementary in Largo, said he's surprised each summer at how few students take advantage of the program. And Campbell Park principal Jim Steen said he always expects to see more neighborhood kids than the handful who show up.

The low turnout also surprises Gray Miller, food services director for Pinellas schools.

"The kids don't even have to show identification," Miller said. "They don't have to do anything but show up."

The lack of participation is especially troubling given the extreme need of some families, said Mike Fisher, director of the YMCA summer program at Rainbow Village in Largo. Fisher suspects the free lunch some of the kids in his program get, courtesy of the Summer Food Service Program, is their most nourishing meal of the day.

"For a lot of these families," Fisher said, "it's a lifesaver."

Fast Facts:

Food breakdown

More than 7.5-million helpings of free food were served statewide last summer at a cost of $14,875,000. Here's the breakdown:

Breakfasts: 1,371,362.

Lunches: 4,120,130.

Dinners: 26,501.

Snacks: 2,208,147.

Number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch:

Elemen. Middle

Pinellas 49% 42%

Hills. 56% 51%

State 52% 48%

For information on the Summer Food Service Program for Children, call (727) 547-7155 in Pinellas. In Hillsborough, call (813) 272-2986.

Source: Florida Department of Education