Filling the summer food gap: Columbus, Starkville to offer free meals to children throughout summer






Mary Pollitz



In Mississippi, one-in-four children struggle with food insecurity.  


According to, that's nearly 165,000 children in Mississippi that may not know where their next meal will come from. 


During the school year, many of those children at least have access to breakfast and lunch on weekdays. But when school stops, the need to eat does not. 


The United States Department of Agriculture funds the federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which provides free breakfast and lunch for children during the summer to help curb summer hunger.  


The program is implemented at school districts in Columbus and Starkville, as well as through other community organizations, where the majority of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch during the school year, thus offering free meals to children in need.  


The Mississippi Department of Education reimburses schools the program costs with funds from the USDA.  


MDE Child Nutrition Director Scott Clements said students in Mississippi benefit substantially from the federal program.  


"One of the biggest pieces is (these programs) are in low-income areas," Clements said. "This provides meals to children in need. We have a lot of students that fall in that category. Summer meals helps fill that gap between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next school year. It gives those students good nutrition throughout the summer and they return to school healthy and ready to learn."  


MDE recorded 2,505,729 meals served in Mississippi during the summer of 2018.  


Anyone 18 years or younger qualifies for SFSP this summer at all Starkville, Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated and Columbus Municipal School District SFSP locations. Participants do not have to register or be students of either district.  


They must eat the food on-site, however.  






Last summer, CMSD served about 15,000 meals through SFSP.  


Mia Johnson, CMSD child nutrition director, said she believes the district will serve around that figure in the coming months.  


"We are just trying to work to stop summer hunger," Johnson said. "There's a lot of kids out there without breakfast and without lunch. We don't want (any) child to go without lunch or breakfast." 


CMSD is offering meals at Columbus High School, Columbus Middle School, Stokes Beard Elementary School and Joe Cook Elementary Monday through Friday, May 28 through June 28. Breakfast will be served from 7:45-8:45 a.m. Lunch will be served from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.  


Johnson added CMSD has a dedicated food service crew that has sacrificed their summer to help children throughout the area. She added CMSD chose various locations to try to reach every area of Columbus. Throughout the program, Johnson said she has seen children pull together to ensure everyone has a meal.  


"We have parents that work and they have older kids that bring the younger kids to eat," Johnson said. "They also stop next door and get the neighbor's kids to make sure they get a hot lunch. Sometimes this is the only meal some kids get. This is another way we can help the community is through this program." 






SOCSD and Starkville Parks and Recreation will offer various SFSP to help reach different areas in the community.  


Ginny Hill, SOCSD child nutrition director, said the programs at SOCSD is a way to reach out and help the community throughout the summer.  


"This is a great outreach opportunity for Starkville School District to have for the community and Starkville for the summer," Hill said. "... We invite Community Counseling to bring their kids and other summer programs to receive meals for free."  


SOCSD will have two locations, at Henderson Ward Stewart and Overstreet elementary schools. HWS will serve summer meals June 3 through July 12 and OES will serve meals June 3 through June 27. HWS will serve meals Monday through Friday and OES will serve meals Monday through Thursday.  


Both schools will serve breakfast from 7:45-8:45 a.m. HWS will serve lunch from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and OES will serve lunch from 11-11:45 a.m.  


Gerry Logan, Starkville parks director, said the Sportsplex and J.L. King park will offer the SFSP to help combat food shortages for kids in need. The program will last from June 3 through July 31. Breakfast will be served at both locations from 8-9 a.m. and lunch will be served 11 a.m.-1 p.m.  


"With summer meals, there's a big issue out there and folks don't realize it's an issue that's right here in Starkville is a lot of kids get their only meals from the school district," Logan said. "When school's out for the summer, they may not get fed. Kids go hungry. With these summer food programs, this is literally in some cases the only opportunity for kids to eat. It's an incredibly important program."  


To find SFSP nearby, call 866-348-6479 or go to




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