Summer lunch program tries to reach more kids in York County
- Young people gather at Martin Library daily to receive free lunch.
- The program is provided by the Summer Food Service Program, a national program aimed at reducing childhood hunger.
- Advocates say while the program is successful, more accessibility is needed.
One advocate is calling for more avenues of delivery and additional funding for a federal summer meal program after a recent survey found less than one-fifth of the Pennsylvania students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches use the program.
The Summer Food Service Program, started in 1976 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serves meals to children 18 and younger in nonprofit entities across the country, including at more than 25 locations in York County.
Low participation: However, just 19 percent of students in Pennsylvania who qualify received services from a Summer Food Service Program location, according to the Department of Education.
Joel Berg, CEO of the nonprofit anti-hunger advocacy group Hunger Free America, said there are several factors that lead to the anemic numbers, including few hubs in rural areas and restrictions on food accessibility Berg says are unnecessary.
For example, summer meal providers must have an area where the recipients must eat the food — those receiving the service cannot take the food with them. Berg said that not allowing people to take the food to go drives away potential recipients and strains the cost of centers that have to pay for maintenance of eating areas.
In addition, he said the funds locations receive, which are calculated per-meal, often fail to cover the cost for providing the service, in part, because of the cost of ingredients.
“In many large numbers, a majority (of providing locations) either lose or break even,” Berg said.
Berg added the success of the Summer Food Service Program rests on locations that often are visited by locals, whether rural or urban.
“A location should be in tandem with something that’s going on. A pool, a recreation center, a park,” he said. “Those are everywhere.”
Casey Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, which disperses the program's funds in Pennsylvania, said the department is working to increase the number of sponsors and sites, including in rural areas.
“We know that there can be barriers to access in those areas due to distance and transportation issues,” she said, “so adding more sites across the commonwealth would certainly help us reach more Pennsylvanians, no matter where they live.”
Summer success: One location that has found success under the program is Martin Library in York City.
Educators at the library say the Summer Food Service Program helps many students, mostly from York City, stay fed and in a safe, quiet space. One hundred percent of York City School District students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to the Department of Education.
During available hours, students can stop by the eating area within the children’s section at Martin Library and eat for free — no identification required.
“A lot of children come every day, and it’s a good, consistent way to get a healthy meal,” said Paula Gilbert, director of youth services for Martin Library.
According to Gilbert, the library has spread the word through many channels to inform parents and students about the program, including through social media, the library website and a summer mailer delivered to 43,000 homes.
She added that the Summer Food Service Program helps students stay in the library for other beneficial programs, including the library’s ongoing summer reading program and dance camp.
"Sometimes I don't feel like going home, so I'd rather eat lunch here," said Gabe Ankers, a 10-year-old from York City. He is a participant in Martin Library’s summer reading program.
Joy Nkechi Agummadu, 13, of York City, said her mother drops off her and her two brothers, Ebuka Jedidiah, 4, and Odinaka Christian, 6, while she runs errands.
She said the lunch period is a great way to bridge the several hours they spend at the library daily reading books and accessing the computer lab.
Simply for bridging the hunger divide in York City, Gilbert said the program is worth keeping at the library.
“We’ll do this as long as we can,” she said.
Berg's organization, Hunger Free America, also operates the USDA National Hunger Hotline, a resource that provides information on how to obtain food and food assistance. The hotline is open for calls weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 866-3-HUNGRY.