By John Finnerty, Harrisburg Correspondent The Herald of Mercer County,
DURING THE school year, about half of Pennsylvania’s public school students get free lunch, state Department of Education data show.
A federally funded program aims to give those children access to meals during the summer, when the schools are closed.
The effort, coordinated in Pennsylvania by the Department of Education, has roughly 2,500 lunch sites scattered across the state.
The Department of Education says 6 million meals were served by the Summer Food Service Program in 2016. But the state estimates that only a fifth of the 1.6 million students who get free lunch at school got meals in the summer.
It’s a national problem, a report released by the Food Research and Action Center found. Nationally only about one in six students eligible for meals through the summer programs get them.
Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom half of states, though. The group says Pennsylvania is 28th in terms of getting low-income kids food over the summer break.
The report found that in the District of Columbia more than half of the children eligible got summer meals, best in the country. Among states, New Mexico and Vermont do the best at feeding low-income children during the summer. In those states, better than one in three kids from low-income families get free meals in the summer.
The people who run the lunch sites say there’s no question that the meals are needed.
Barron Deffenbaugh, associated director of Harmony Camp, recalled an interaction with a youngster at a summer meal site a few years ago. The site provides meals Monday to Thursday, he said. One Thursday evening a child asked if he could have an extra order to take home for the weekend. Deffenbaugh said some meal sites give students backpacks with food to take home. That site didn’t have a provision to give students food to take with him.
After getting the bad news, the young man replied that, at least he knew he’d have a meal on Monday when the site reopened, Deffenbaugh said.
“It almost brought tears to my eyes,” he said.
The camp delivers the food to some of the sites. Deffenbaugh said. When he arrives with the meal, he sees youngsters waiting for him to arrive who run along eagerly to greet him and the food he’s bringing.
He sometimes sees kids from the meal sites around town.
“They say ‘You’re the man brings the food,’” Deffenbaugh said.
“On the downside, it’s unfortunate that there is hunger in our country,” he said. The program provides nutrition and a signal that their neighbors care enough to make sure they are getting something to eat, Deffenbaugh said.
Many of the sites that offer the summer food program are run by local school districts, and the meals are served from school buildings.
Darryl Lloyd runs the summer food program for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. Before he took the job with the food bank, Lloyd was the food service director in the Harrisburg School District. He remembers being at a meal site and talking to a youngster who one day told him, “I’m been waiting since yesterday, this time, to eat lunch” again, Lloyd recalled.
Harmony Camp in Somerset County has used the Summer Food program for more than two decades at the camp, said Barron Deffenbaugh, the camp’s associate director. But about five years ago, the camp’s operators determined there was a need to offer meals to students in the communities around the camp.
“Children lose educationally if they aren’t getting the correct nutrition,” Deffenbaugh said. “We wondered: ‘What can we do?’
The camp began to offer meals at sites around the county. Last year, with 18 sites, they served 11,000 meals. This year, with two more sites, they expect to serve as many as 13,000 meals, Deffenbaugh said.
The Central PA Food Bank coordinates summer meals at 77 sites in 12 counties – Bradford, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Columbia, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lycoming, Northumberland, Perry, Snyder and York.
Next week, those sites are expected to serve 1,678 lunches, 650 breakfasts and 200 dinners, he said.
The Central PA Food Bank just started coordinating summer meal sites in 2014, with 11 sites. Last year, they’d increased to 66 sites, and they added 11 more for this summer, Lloyd said.
He said that growth is from a combination of outreach by the food bank to find additional sites, along with partner agencies coming forward to provide a place for kids to get meals.
“We’re on the right track,” he said. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”