June 25, 2019 11:27:52 AM
More than 1,000 children whose families struggle with food insecurity receive free breakfasts and lunches every week day in Columbus and Starkville.
Providing those meals is a collaborative effort that draws on volunteers, donations, city support and federal funding to make it work.
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. The Mississippi Department of Education reimburses schools the program costs with funds from the USDA.
"In Mississippi, something like one in four kids doesn't know when they're going to get their next meal," said MDE Child Nutrition Director Scott Clements. "With these programs in areas with low incomes, we can help with that need in times when kids can't access free (or) reduced meals like they can in school. That's what this is about."
Columbus Municipal School District voted unanimously during a special-call meeting Monday morning to extend its summer feeding program to July 26. Board President Jason Spears said that normally, a vote like this is not needed to continue the program, which feeds more than 350 kids daily, but the unique set of circumstances this year forced CMSD to use June as a trial month to see where resources for the program could best be allocated.
"During June, we had the program at multiple sites (Columbus High School, Columbus Middle School, Stokes Beard Elementary School and Joe Cook Elementary)," Spears said. "When we brought it back today, we looked at which location saw the most traffic so we could make a decision on where to continue the program."
In previous years, CMSD designated the former Hunt High School in north Columbus as one of the locations for SFSP. That's where the majority of the students in years past would go for free meals, Spears said. However, due to severe damage to the roof during a Feb. 23 tornado, Hunt is "not an option," he said.
From July 1 to July 26, only Stokes Beard will be serving meals. Spears and CMSD Child Nutrition Director Mia Johnson both told The Dispatch students 18 and younger who live within the city limits are eligible to receive meals at this location. Meals for adults are available for $4 each, and all meals must be consumed on the premises. Breakfast will be served from 7:45-8:45 a.m. Lunch will be served from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
"We have two summer camps that the city hosts at Townsend and Sim Scott parks and they come in too for meals," Johnson said. "So it's not just about feeding kids, it's about taking the weight off parents who worry about packing their child a lunch for camp. They know their kid is going to be fed."
In Starkville, more that 1,100 children receive free daily breakfasts and lun-ches between Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District and Starkville Parks and Recreations' SFSPs.
SOCSD Child Nutrition Director Ginny Hill estimates about 560 children come to both Henderson Ward Stewart and Overstreet elementary schools daily, with an additional 120 receiving breakfasts at different "satellite locations" in lower-income neighborhoods.
"While projections (of daily attendance) were higher than the actual turnout, we are pleased with the (number of) students taking advantage of this program," she said.
In a similar fashion to CMSD, SCOSD will stop serving meals at Overstreet Elementary at the end of this week. Hill told The Dispatch all students are encouraged to go to Henderson Ward Stewart for breakfast from 7:45-8:45 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Satellite locations will also be open.
SOCSD's SFSP program ends July 12.
Gerry Logan, Starkville's parks director, has taken its SFSP on the road through a partnership with Southern Foundation for Homeless Children, a nonprofit with an office in Starkville that provides at-risk children and youth with resources to enhance their quality of life. SFHC handles the food distribution, which is federally reimbursed through USDA just like SFSP programs held at school districts, and Starkville Parks and Recreation provide access to facilities. SFHC and the parks department have established SFSP sites at the Sportsplex and J.L. King Park, and also set up mobile feeding sites at various apartment complexes and outside recreational fields where children have summer sports practice.
"Through the program, we can actually set up and get those players a bag meal," said Ora Nickles, SFHC's director. "We have a lot of kids in Starkville that are really good athletes, but they aren't always able to get a meal."
Between all the different SFSP sites, as well as children bused in from the Boys and Girls Club and Community Counseling Services, Nickles estimates more than 600 children are fed daily.
The program has also implemented a way to give some children weekend meals.
"We tried something new this year where we used a small grant to purchase backpacks and food items to send kids home with food for the weekend," Logan said. "We've been doing that every Friday for three weeks, and we usually pass out 50 to 75 bags every week."
After that first time purchasing bags, and enough food to fill them, Logan worried there wouldn't be enough money to keep it up. But, he said, he has never had to worry since that first Friday.
"The best part of this is that we only promoted it a little, but we've had over a half-dozen individuals donate and so many volunteers come to help fill the bags," he said. "We have such a short time to do something for those kids. The bags don't have unlimited food in them and we do have to limit them per household, but it's something."
Meals at the Sportsplex and J.L. King Park will be served until July. Breakfast will be served from 8-9 a.m. and lunch will be served 11 a.m.-1 p.m. For information about donating food for take-home bags, call Lisa Cox at 323-2294. To find SFSP nearby, call 866-348-6479 or go to https://www.summerfoodrocks.org/sitefinder.
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