This past school year, 54 percent of students in the Springfield school district received either a free or reduced lunch. So come summer, it might seem that a majority of local youth could struggle to get enough to eat. But that is not the case.
“Parents don’t realize there are open sites and that they can have their kids come in and enjoy breakfast and lunch,” said Amy Gibbons, director of nutrition for Springfield public schools. “It’s the same food we serve during the regular school year, it’s healthy and it meets all the USDA guidelines.”
Gibbons says that there are 29 school sites, 28 of which are open to the public, that take part in the Food Service Program. The program offers free breakfast and lunch to all kids under the age of 18 and reduced lunch fees for adults.
Students are not required to be enrolled in Explore, the summer school program. They can simply show up at one of the sites. There are also two dinner sites, with one of those open to the public.
“At Sherwood Elementary School we have a Boys and Girls program there that is open after school and we supply dinner for those students. It’s about 175 dinners Monday thru Friday,” she said. “We have another school site, Robberson Community School, that is open to the public.”
Anybody can receive dinner at Robberson. Kids can eat for free and adults at a reduced price, but Gibbons said dinner isn’t getting a large turnout.
“I think that is because people’s lives are busy. They get home from school and start doing things and they forget dinner is available to them,” she said.
There are also other ways to feed youth when school and summer school are not in session and over the weekends.
Ozarks Food Harvest offers 14 feeding sites in 9 counties over the summer months. According to Christine Temple, communications coordinator for OFH, it provides over 40,000 government subsidized meals and snacks to local families.
During the school year, OFH also offers the Backpack Program, which provides food to kids over the weekend.
“The weekend backpack program serves about 1,600 kids every week in Springfield and rural schools,” Temple said. “Those kids will receive a backpack that is full of six child-friendly and nutritious meals that they can eat over weekend.”
Temple says they started the Backpack Program in 2003 because that a lot of kids that struggle with hunger were coming back to school on Monday and exhibiting more signs of hunger. Right now, they are partnered with 52 schools during the school year. While the full program is not currently in operation, officials still find a way to feed youth during the summer.
“We do serve about 5,000 of those weekend backpacks during the summer and we call them ‘summer sacks,’” she said. “We distribute them through mobile food pantries and through the summer food sites.”
She said that all kids have to do to receive a backpack is show up and say they are hungry, which in our community is around 1 in 4 kids. She also added that a one dollar donation can purchase five meals for kids in need.
“Kids that struggle with hunger have no control over the fact they are hungry,” she said. “We provide emergency food assistance with families that saw a loss of a job, or a disability or a car that stopped working. It could really be any of us at any point if one bad thing happened in our life. These kids are totally reliant on their schools, community and families to make sure they are healthy and have enough to eat.”
The OFH distributes over 16 million pounds of food a year with 90 percent coming from donations.