POST-GAZETTE—Getting a free and nutritious lunch is something that many needy children can count on during the school year.
In the summer, however, it can be a different story.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, 43 percent of school-age children, or more than 139,000, are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, according to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
But hunger doesn’t go away when the school year ends.
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership work together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program to make sure kids have enough to eat during the summer months.
“Essentially we work as part of the USDA program,” said Beth Snyder, spokesperson for the food bank. She said the food bank coordinates with the USDA to find sponsors and sites to offer the summer meals. Sponsors include schools, churches and other community organizations.
Last year, the Summer Food Service Program provided more than 1 million free meals to children throughout the 11 counties in the food bank’s service area.
Children who come to a site to eat lunch do not have to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. The only stipulations are they must be 18 years old or younger and eat the lunch at the site.
One new site for the Summer Food Service Program is Baldwin United Presbyterian Church in Baldwin Borough, where the South Hills Interfaith Movement, or SHIM, sponsors the meal program. It is open to any child 18 or younger but mainly focuses on children living in the Residences of South Hills apartment complex, said Jim Guffey, executive director of SHIM.
“It was an an island that wasn’t being served,” he said. “The whole idea is to move services closer to where the needs are.”
SHIM also sponsors a site at the Prospect Park community in Whitehall, which coincides with the annual summer camp it holds there and serves only children who live in that community.
This year the Prospect Park site is serving USDA lunches, Mr. Guffey said. Previously, SHIM worked with local churches to provide food for the children.
“The challenge was that the food was not culturally sensitive,” Mr. Guffey said, explaining that most residents at Prospect Park are refugees from countries such as Nepal and Bhutan and for various reasons don’t eat pork-based products.
So, a change was made in the type of food served.
This year’s menus have included chicken salad sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, chicken teriyaki, burritos, grilled chicken salads and “a lot of healthy stuff,” Mr. Guffey said. Additionally, kids get a choice of regular, chocolate or strawberry milk and have fruits and vegetables every day. A child who doesn’t like what is on the menu on a particular day can opt to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“They’ve really upgraded the meals. The kids love it,” Mr. Guffey said.
“It’s healthy for the kids,” said Roshan Chamlagai, who has been site supervisor at Prospect Park for three years. “They love it.”
About 125 kids are registered for the free camp at Prospect Park, with each child receiving a free lunch every day. The average daily attendance is about 60.
Activities include soccer, yoga, arts and crafts, games and other programs. Once a week, the children swim at the Whitehall municipal pool. They also pick produce from the garden at Whitehall Presbyterian Church to make salads.
Mr. Guffey said he hopes to add activities to the meal program at Baldwin United Presbyterian Church, which has an average daily attendance of about 25.
The free lunch programs at Baldwin United Presbyterian Church and Prospect Park run through Aug. 5. Lunch is served starting at 11:30 each weekday.
For a list of Summer Food Service Program sites: http://www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks
Story by Deana Carpenter.