School's on break, not appetite

At 20 locations, program serves free lunch to kids during summer vacation

August 06, 2007|By Alia Malik | Alia Malik,Sun reporter

Tomas Belizaire received free lunches last year as a second-grader at Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School. And now that it's summer, the free meals keep coming.

A week into summer break, he started attending day camp at the Crispus Attucks Police Athletic League Center, where the food and activities are free.

Tomas is one of 985 children who receive free meals every day through a "Healthy Meals, Happy Kids" program sponsored by the Maryland Food Bank and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Baltimore Moms on a Mission Squad. The Food Bank sends meals to 19 sites in the city and one in Baltimore County, up from six last year.

Last year, participation in summer meal programs increased 15 percent in Maryland, making it the state with the fourth-highest growth rate for such programs, accorded to USDA statistics.

Families who depend on free meals for their children during the school year are often stretched for money in the summer, Food Bank officials said.

"When school is out, they end up hungry if there aren't programs like this," said Food Bank program manager Lavonzell Nicholson.

"There's a huge need in Baltimore City right now," she said.

Last year in Maryland, 206,000 children received free or reduced-price lunches, USDA numbers show. About 50,000 continued to receive free meals during the summer of 2006.

In Baltimore, 85 percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, Nicholson said.

Sites receiving USDA money to give away food must check children's eligibility unless the site is in an area where more than 50 percent of students receive school lunch assistance. All of the Food Bank's sites, which are scattered throughout lower- and middle-income areas of the city, serve any child who asks for food.

The program also works to combat child obesity, Nicholson said, because healthy food is often more expensive.

"If a child's not eating a well-balanced, nutritious meal, then what are they eating?" she said. "Cheez-Its, you know, things from the corner store."

At the Attucks center on a Friday in July, about 75 children lined up for ham-and-cheese sandwiches, fruit cups, carrot sticks with ranch dressing and reduced-fat milk.

If the PAL center didn't give 8-year-old Saniyah Redd lunch, she would probably eat at Burger King, if she could afford it, she said. As a third-grader at Eutaw Marshburn Elementary School last year, she bought lunch for the reduced price of 40 cents, she said.

Darrell Shelton, 10, received free lunches last year as a fourth-grader at Pimlico Elementary/Middle School. When he's home during the summer, sometimes he skips lunch and doesn't eat dinner until 9 p.m., he said. But the meals he gets from the PAL center, often hot, keep him full, he said.

"There's a lot of good stuff that we eat every day," he said.

Federal funding for summer meal programs in the state is administered by the Maryland State Department of Education, said Bruce Schenkel, a staff specialist for the department's School and Community Nutrition Programs branch. In addition to the Food Bank, the Baltimore school system sponsors free meals in schools for any child during the summer, and the city housing department coordinates meals for summer programs in low-income areas, said Deputy Housing Commissioner Reggie Scriber.

The USDA pays part of the cost to produce and distribute each meal. The Food Bank handles the remaining costs of its $80,000 summer program with help from the Mom Squad, said Food Bank spokeswoman Shanna Yetman.

The Food Bank's sites include all 18 Police Athletic League centers in the city, as well as one in Baltimore County and a city church. Most of the children the Food Bank feeds are involved in free summer programs at the sites, Yetman said.

The Mom Squad, a children's advocacy group founded by mothers of professional athletes, arranged for the Food Bank Centers to be advertised in a public service announcement on television.

The announcement, featuring retired Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary, airs on all major networks.

"We have to feed them fast, and we have to do it now," said Mom Squad spokeswoman Maureen Gleason Bryant, who is not the mother of an athlete

The promise of free food is motivating low-income parents to put their children in the summer programs that distribute them, Bryant said.

"It's attracting children to the PAL programs, which is wonderful because if we're attracting them, then the gangs aren't getting them," she said.

When the PAL centers that serve breakfast open in the morning, children are sometimes waiting outside to be fed, said Sgt. James L. Vaughan of the Police Department's Youth Services Division.

Centers receive meals based on the number of children their officers estimate they will feed, Yetman said. Usually, that means just enough meals for the summer program children, as well as the youth workers hired by the city. Random children show up sometimes, Vaughan said, and they too are fed, out of the center's own pocket, if necessary.

"We don't turn any kids away," Vaughan said. "If a child is hungry, we will feed them."

alia.malik@baltsun.com

For more information on free summer meals, visit www.mdsummermeals.org or call 877-731-9300.

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