By Fred Kight
It’s 11am on a warm June day and the Evergreen Estates meeting room is starting to fill up. Families are gathering at this apartment complex in The Plains for a free meal program that attracts as many as 50 kids on a normal day.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Christina Buehler. She’s brought son Christopher, 4, and daughter Allyssa, 2, for a meal that today is apples, cheese, pretzels and milk.
The Summer Food Service Program is operated by Hocking, Athens, Perry Community Action’s Southeast Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen. Evergreen Estates is one of six “open” sites in Athens County for the Monday-Friday program.
During the school year, many families rely on the school lunch program to make sure their children have a nutritious meal five days a week. The mission of the summer feeding program is to meet the needs of hungry children in the summer by providing them with healthy meals and snacks, helping their families to stretch their food dollars.
“It helps out and the kids love it, too,” said Buehler, who also gets assistance from the Food Stamp and WIC programs. Her son especially likes Fridays when pizza is served for lunch.
Buehler lives at Evergreen Estates but according to Property Manager Donna Bentley, other residents of The Plains also participate.
“We’ll do absolutely anything to help the community,” said Bentley. She contacted Community Action to seek designation as a host site.
“There’s some kids that need fed,” said Bentley. She pointed out that several mothers volunteer to unload and serve the food that’s delivered every day.
Sometimes the families also get food to take home. On this particular day, oranges and honeydew melons are being given away.
The hours are from 11 to noon at The Plains and from 12-1 at the libraries in Glouster, Nelsonville, and Coolville. The other Athens County sites are at the libraries in Chauncey - where lunch is served from 1:30 to 2:30 - and Albany, where service is from 11:30-12:30.
“We want to target areas where we know we can make the biggest impact and that means going where the kids already are, rather than hoping they come to us,” said Asti Payne, Development and Community Relations Coordinator.
The Summer Food Service Program – which also operates in Hocking, Gallia, Perry and Vinton counties - is open to all children 18 and younger, or any person 19 to 21 who is mentally or physically disabled. There are no income requirements.
In addition, free meals for children ages pre-school to 5th grade are available at the RSVP Intergenerational Summer Feeding Program in Amesville (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and Shade (Wednesdays and Fridays.) The Corporation for Ohio Appalachia Development is the partner in that “closed” program, which requires pre-registration (by calling 740-594-8499.)
“We are looking for volunteers to help in the kitchen packaging meals and at our sites to serve and interact with the kids,” said Payne. “If you'd like to volunteer, please call Mallory at 740-385-6813, extension 2207.”
The Southeast Ohio Foodbank and Kitchen has been operating the program for around 10 years and this year has a total of 40 sites. Last year it provided 102,288 summer meals throughout Southeast Ohio.
“The program is working for our less rural areas, in areas where kids either already are or have easy access to walk or bike,” said Payne. “This program is getting nutritious food into the hands of children who might not have access to it otherwise.”
Still, not everyone who needs food is being served by this feeding program.
“Where this model doesn't work are in our more rural area where families may have to drive up to 20 minutes one way” to get to a site, explained Payne. “That is not feasible for our families with limited resources and large transportation and geographic barriers.”
This is why the Rural Summer Feeding Program was initiated in Athens County through the Governor’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives.
“This program provides a weekly box of shelf stable meals so families who live farther away and can't easily access our traditional summer feeding program only has to come once a week for a weeks’ worth of meals,” said Payne. “It's a phenomenal program that allows us to serve even more meals in a more effective way.”
Funding for the regular program comes from the Child Nutrition Act which has recently expired, but Payne is optimistic it will be reauthorized by Congress.
“It's just a question of what will be included in it,” said Payne. “For example, we are hoping that funding to support the innovative Rural Summer Feeding Program in more of our counties is allocated, among other things.”
The regular program this year also received help from Rent-2-Own of Athens, Aaron's of Athens, Rent-2-Own of Logan, and Aaron’s in New Lexington. They donated refrigerators to several summer feeding sites, allowing kids to have access to fresh milk, which is “one of the most frequently requested items at a foodbank,” said Payne.