Summer feeding programs fight hunger

Summer feeding programs fight hunger

Written by: Debby Stanuch
Published by: Baxter Bulletin

It is true, a trip to the grocery store is getting more and more expensive. According to USDA government statistics, food prices, a major component of the Consumer Price Index, have increased nearly 2 percent in 2019.

And they are expected to continue to rise.

For families with growing children, rising food prices puts increased pressure on already tight food budgets, especially in the summertime when children are not receiving meals at school.

In Arkansas — where nearly 24 percent of the child population is considered food insecure — those school meals, offered free or at significantly reduced prices, are critical. Fortunately, free summer meals are offered to children under 18 through programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Arkansas Department of Education.

One program, Seamless Summer Feeding, is in Norfork. Offered through the Arkansas Department of Education and USDA, breakfast and lunch is offered free to children under 18 years. Adults can eat at the reduced price of $2.25 for breakfast and $3.75 for lunch.

Norfork is the only location in Baxter County where Seamless Summer meals are served.

“We have been serving the summer meals for over ten years. It’s a really beneficial program for our community and our kids,” said Mike Seay, retiring Superintendent of Norfork Schools.

Seay believes the reduced priced meals for adults, especially seniors, offers rewarding interaction with children. “It’s a win-win for everybody.” He hopes the program continues after he retires the end of June.

According to Candice Beavers, School Nutritionist at Norfork Schools, meals are served Monday through Thursday with breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. until noon.

“You don’t have to be from Norfork,” said Beavers. “Anybody who can bring their kids here, bring them. You can’t beat free.”

Most of the children and adults eating at Norfork this summer are kids currently enrolled in summer school, summer youth programs, head-start or those working at the schools. Beavers knows many more children could be receiving the free meals if they were able to get to the school.

“My dream is to have a mobile unit to take a book and a meal to kids. If you keep a book a child’s hands, you are keeping their hands out of something they shouldn’t be doing,” she said.

The lack of accessibility to meal programs, such as the one in Norfork, is not uncommon. The USDA estimates over 22 million children nationwide receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year. However, during the summer months, only 3.76 million children receive the meals offered through the USDA Summer Food Service Program due to lack of access to meal sites, insufficient program awareness and limited resources when schools are closed.

Food Bank Summer Meal Program

The Food Bank of North Central Arkansas offers free meals to children under 18 at 10 Summer Meal Sites in Baxter, Marion and Searcy counties. The Summer Meal Program is a partner of the After-School Meal Program, according to Jeff Quick, Chief Executive Officer of the food bank which operates both programs locally. The meals, he says, are provided by the USDA and follow their nutritional guidelines. Many of the sites also offer educational and recreational activities for children.

Quick reports in 2017, 7,000 meals were distributed through both programs. The following year, the meals distributed more than doubled to 16,000. During 2019, he expects the two programs will distribute 30,000 meals to children in need, including between 8,000 to 10,000 meals through the summer program alone.

According to statistics provided from Feeding America, the food insecurity rate in Arkansas has increased from 23.2 percent in 2018 to 23.6 percent in 2019. In North Central Arkansas, the percentage has decreased slightly from 25.3 percent in 2018 to 24.9 percent in 2019. Baxter County’s rate has decreased from 23.2 percent in 2018 to 22.3 percent in 2019 and the 2018 rate of 25.6 percent in Marion County remains unchanged.

“While we have had a decrease in the number of food insecure children, it is still near 1 in 4,” says Quick. “It is just not acceptable to have children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”

Arkansas Senator Boozman has championed legislation to reform the summer meals program to make federal child nutrition programs more efficient and flexible so all children, no matter where they live, have access to healthy, nutritious meals when school is out.

He serves on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee which held a hearing on Child Nutrition Reauthorization and is committed to reviewing the summer meals program to better serve children.

“As a former school board member, I’ve seen first-hand that nutrition is critical to our children’s ability to thrive in and out of the classroom,” said Boozman. “For too many of our nation’s children, summer can be the hungriest time of the year. That’s why we need a summer meals program that works in urban, suburban and rural areas.

“I will continue to press the administration and pursue legislative improvements that allow Arkansas and all states the flexibility they need to choose what makes the most sense in their communities, so that children in rural and hard to reach communities are getting the nutrition they need in the summer,” the Senator added.

Arkansas First District Congressman Rick Crawford, who serves on the Agriculture Committee, has played a critical role in the passage of two Farm Bills. He views agriculture as a national security issue and said, “Our food programs play a vital role in keeping our friends and families nourished and healthy. Food access has always been a challenge in rural America and expanding mobile feeding programs would help fill the gap, providing new avenues to healthy choices.”

Church Programs

Local churches also work year-round to provide meals for children. Now in its sixth year, the Summer Feeding Program, a ministry of First United Methodist Church in Mountain Home, is serving nearly 50 families in Mountain Home.

Susan Dernick, ministry chair, said while the Backpack and Weekend Meals programs help families during the school year, the Summer Feeding Program fills the gap when school is out.

Each week families signed up for the program receive boxes of food packaged by church volunteers and paid for by donations from church members. Families of children in Mountain Home schools or head start, as well as home-school students are eligible.

The food is distributed each Thursday, for 11 weeks beginning May 30 from 11:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the church.

Although sign-up and information sheets were distributed to children at the end of the school year, it is not too late for eligible families to begin receiving the weekly food distributions.

For more information, call or stop by the church located at 605 West 6th Street at the corner of 6th and Bucher Drive in Mountain Home. Office hours are Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the phone number is (870) 425-6036. The church will also gratefully accept donations to their Backpack Weekend Meals programs and Summer Feeding Programs.

Seamless Summer Meals at Norfork Schools are served in the cafeteria of the Elementary School on the Norfork School campus off AR Highway 5 and Sheid Road. For menu information and directions, call the school at (870) 499-7192.

For information on the programs of the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas, visit their website at or call their office at (870) 499-7565. Donations to the programs of the food bank can be made at the website.

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