By VICKI ROCK Daily American Staff Writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Children in Somerset County go hungry when schools are closed.
In 2013, 664 children received 9,263 meals through the Summer Food Service program , an increase of 150 percent over the previous year. In Pennsylvania about 600,000 children are on the free or reduced-price school lunch program. Of those, 250,000 also eat free or reduced-price breakfasts. Only 100,000 are in the summer feeding program.
Kevin Concannon, the undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in a telephone interview that the county’s increase in numbers shows how important the summer program is.
“Often I say when people drive by schools they are mindful of the teachers, the classrooms and the textbooks, but they may not be mindful that our schools are an important source of nutrition for children,” he said. “We are reaching only one of six children who are most in need of food. I often say one of the major reasons for the gap is that the school buses are not running.”
When schools were closed over the winter, a school superintendent in Prince George’s County, Md., told Concannon he was concerned. School had to be closed because of the weather, but he realized that there were children who would go hungry that day because they weren’t eating at school.
Next to school districts, the largest partner that operates Summer Food Service Programs are Boys & Girls Clubs. Barbara Knecht, chief professional officer of the Somerset County Boys & Girls Club, said some children come from a home in which they may only have cold cereal for their evening meal.
“Many of our kids are needy,” she said. “During the summer they are quite hungry. The Summer Food Service Program helps fill their tummies in the summer.”
The Somerset County Boys & Girls Club served 416 children 6,210 meals in 2013. Nine other sites served meals during the summer, and more may be added, said Karen Dreyer, director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership, an initiative of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. She did not want to release the sites serving food this summer because some have not been finalized.
“We know there are more kids who could participate and who don’t,” she said. “Somerset County is one of the harder-hit counties in terms of recent job losses.”
But the 150 percent increase in meals served last summer shows the commitment of people here.
“I’ve been so impressed by the Somerset County program, it grew tremendously in one year,” Dreyer said. “That shows the initiative of the community that works together. It gives me hope that the program will continue to grow so children get needed nutrition in the summer. It is so important: Children’s bodies are small and they are developing. If they don’t get proper nutrition, they can be behind developmentally.”
Although many cities and towns have sites where children may eat for free during the summer, those same places often do not have mass transit. Transportation is often a problem in Somerset County, Knecht said. She is hopeful that people will be able to walk to one of the sites if they don’t have vehicles.
If it is a site that won’t be operating all summer, the children may go to the Boys & Girls Club after the other site closes. Some sites have various stipulations and may charge a fee for programs. The USDA pays for the food and preparation.
“If the sponsor runs a recreation program or tutoring, we do not cover that part,” Concannon said. “But that is what helps get the children in the door.”