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Free summer meals available for children

By Michael Wetzel, decaturdaily.com

19 days ago   Article ID# 4197242
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Food Bank of North Alabama

DECATUR, ALABAMA (decaturdaily.com) - Laurel Moffat believes there are least 25,000 reasons north Alabama children won’t go hungry this summer. Julia Senn has about another 16,000 reasons.

That's the number of meals they expect will be served in summer feeding programs that began Monday. For some children in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties, the programs' meals will be the only food they receive each day, officials say.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored sites will offer free breakfast, snacks and/or lunch to any children age 18 and under. The USDA’s Summer Food Service Program will serve more than 2 million meals nationwide this summer, according to the program’s website. More than 50 sites in the three-county area will be dishing out the free meals.

“Unfortunately, there’s a need for these meals in most of north Alabama,” said Moffat, a Child Hunger Corps member affiliated with the nonprofit Food Bank of North Alabama. “For many children, it is the difference between going hungry all summer and eating regularly.”

Meals include a sandwich, a healthy side dish, juice and milk, officials said.

The regional food bank is projected to serve about 25,000 meals this summer. Decatur City Schools, another USDA-sponsored agency, is expected to serve 16,000 summer meals, said Senn, Children Nutrition Program supervisor. She said the school system has a central kitchen at Banks-Caddell Elementary on Gordon Drive, where between 600 and 650 meals will be prepared Monday through Thursday during 34 days this summer.

Last summer, more than 700 children were served meals at Central Baptist Church’s Vacation Bible School, Moffat said.

“Not just kids, but families need to be aware (the free program) is available,” Senn said. “Some of the kids will need transportation to and from the sites.”

The school system has offered free meals for the past 25 years, Senn said. “I’m glad we do the program, so we don’t have to wonder if they’re eating that day,” she said.

Two Oak Park Middle School students were among a dozen or so who enjoyed Monday's free breakfast and lunch.

Gaby Rodriguez and Cameron Mitchell said they had cereal for breakfast, and a corn dog, chips, apple, juice and milk for lunch.

"If it wasn't for this program, I'd be hungry this morning," said Rodriguez, 12. "This food allows me to learn more."

Mitchell, 13, said he ate free lunches in past summers at a church. "I'm privileged to eat three meals a day, but some people aren't," he said. "I think it is great that Decatur is offering free food to people in worse conditions. We're lucky to live in a community that does this for all children."

Decatur Youth Services Director Bruce Jones said as a youngster, he was one of those hungry children.

“When I was a kid, I would walk a mile to get this food,” Jones said. “It might be the only meal I got all day. And I didn’t want to miss school. I knew I was going to get a couple meals to eat. … I know kids who go to school and to summer programs to eat. Learning is on the back burner. They want the food.”

He said DYS was a USDA sponsor for about 20 years. “At the time, it was the best, most appreciated program we had,” he said.

About four years ago, the Boys and Girls Club of North Central Alabama took over the local feeding program.

“It’s so important for the children to get meals to eat,” Boys and Girls Club CEO David Varner said. “Not eating properly can stunt their growth and slow their ability to learn.” Varner said his group has 15 meal sites and expects to serve about 800 meals daily this summer.

Lawrence County is seeing a dramatic increase in summer food programs, said Laura Fincher, agency/community relations manager of the Food Bank of North Alabama.

“Two years ago, there were zero (food bank) sites in Lawrence,” Fincher said. “We know there are more than a thousand kids who are food-insecure in Lawrence.”

Now, there are eight free food sites in the county. Lawrence schools are offering the program to all children during summer school. “You don’t have to be going to summer school to get a free lunch,” Lawrence Superintendent Jon Bret Smith said. “We know the kids who get the free or reduced lunches during the school year might not get a meal every day during the summer.”

Lawrence County has five schools and three other sites offering free meals.

One of those sites is Moulton United Methodist Church. Pastor Stephen Benefield said he attended a Children’s Policy Council meeting and heard Moffat’s speech earlier this year.

“There’s an obvious need for something like this, and as a church we’re called to meet the need,” Benefield said. He said his church will be serving from 11 a.m. to noon during the summer. He said volunteers are needed to help distribute the food and clean up 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

“This is our first year and there will be a bit of a learning curve,” Benefield said. He expects about 20-25 meals to be served daily at his church on Market Street in Moulton.

Limestone County has seven sites on the USDA locator map. Also the county school system sponsors a bus that distributes free meals in the needy parts of the county. Officials said it is part of the Combating Hunger on Wheels program.

Teresa Rogers, Limestone school child nutrition director, said the county is preparing breakfast and lunch at Piney Chapel Elementary cafeteria.

"We're trying to reach as many kids as we can," Rogers said.

USDA distributes funding for the free food program through the state Department of Education. Sponsors are reimbursed for the meals served. Some sponsors prepare the meals, while most in north Alabama purchase the meals from Valley Inc., which moved its regional operations from Russellville to Speake. According to the USDA website, sponsors are reimbursed $1.99 for each breakfast served, $3.47 for lunches and 81 cents for snacks.

USDA said about 22.1 million children and teens receive free and reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, but only about 3.8 million participate in the free summer program. While adults are not fed free meals under the USDA program, some sites will be offering them meals at no or reduced costs, officials said.

“We try to prioritize where to put sites,” Fincher said. “Schools and cities are great sponsors. We try to fill in gaps where kids aren’t being served.

"Everyone needs to understand these are free meals for anyone, no questions asked, 18 years and younger."

Copyright 2017 decaturdaily.com   (Copyright Terms)
Updated 19 days ago   Article ID# 4197242

Food Bank of North Alabama    Visit Website

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