Local summer food programs provide free meals for children in need, look for more participation

For Bailey Smith, having the option of free, nutritious lunches for her two children through Greensburg-based United Church of Christ parishes during the summer means “a lot.”

Smith, 32, lives at Hawksworth Garden Apartments, a subsidized housing complex in Greensburg, and works down the street at the Gateway Convenience Store on North Main Street.

“It’s good that there are other people taking care of the kids and giving them food,” Smith said. “There are a lot of people who can’t work, so they don’t have a lot of income.”

Although Smith said she learned about the free meals through the Hawksworth administration, many locals in dire need are wondering what assistance is available for their children during the summer.

“The state doesn’t really provide a lot of revenue when (people) aren’t working, and food stamps aren’t always enough either,” Smith said.

Recent inflation has made it “even more difficult because (the government) isn’t increasing the benefits it gets” as food prices rise, Smith said.

According to 2019 Feeding America food insecurity data, 10.6% of Pennsylvanians (more than 1.3 million people) didn’t always know where their next meal would come from. And that number included more than 380,000 children, which is about 14.6% of all children in the state.

In 2020, during the pandemic, Feeding America’s data analytics reports revealed an increase in food insecurity by more than 1.77 million people. That number dropped to just over 1.5 million in 2021.

Causes of food insecurity, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, include the covid pandemic, difficulty finding resource information, gaps in existing benefits, job loss, isolation, transportation, changes in supply chain, socioeconomic status, and lack of knowledge of existing resources.

With schools closed for the next several months, Cheri Pogue said she wants more students and families in need to know about locally available summer food programs.

Pogue is the chief operating officer of the United Methodist Church Union (UMCU), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that has provided summer food resources to children in Allegheny, Armstrong and Westmoreland counties for about a year. decade.

The United Methodist Church Union has served about 1,400 individual children at its sites each summer for about 10 years. This year, Pogue anticipates more or less the same.

“There’s a place where (kids) can go for a good meal, no questions asked,” said Robinson’s Pogue. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

UMCU sponsored 24 sites in 2021, a significant increase from previous years. This summer it is sponsoring 14, but Pogue estimates three or four locations will be added in the next few days.

The Central Presbyterian Church in Tarentum is one of the sites.

Dave Rankin, executive director of the church’s Faith Community Partnership services, said this is the seventh year the church has hosted a summer food program.

Central Presbyterian’s summer meal program has been running for the past two years, but this year, participants will be required to eat at church.

Rankin added that many of the children using the Central Presbyterian program are from the Highlands School District, which is not hosting a summer food program this year.

Through a program called the Kids Meal Network, UMCU sponsors summer meal programs at churches, nonprofits, housing communities, and other organizations.

“I just wish people knew this program exists,” Robinson’s Pogue said. “They just need to find a sponsoring organization that will sponsor them.”

Similarly, Pastor Steven Craft of the First United Reformed Church of Christ in Greensburg said he opened the church last summer and found “zero kids” coming in for free meals.

But changing its plan this summer is what drew the church to serving lunch at subsidized apartment complexes like Hawksworth, Craft said, which has been successful.

“There is so much need in our community that we don’t realize it,” Craft said.

How does it work

In 2021, Pennsylvania declared a state of food emergency, according to Craft. And this year, counties like Westmoreland face similar hurdles.

“Westmoreland County hasn’t recovered as quickly as some of the other parts of the state, so we still have a lot of kids in need,” Craft said.

Craft works with the Rev. Don Watkins of Denmark Manor United Church of Christ in Greensburg to serve meals to children with the help of a transport truck that has been converted into a food delivery trailer to set up in parking lots.

The team prepares and serves 10 different entrees to kids during the summer depending on the day, including cold sandwiches, sloppy joes, pasta with meat sauce, and ham barbecue.

Watkins said the program served just under 900 meals last year, and they expect to more than double that total this summer.

“I think most people are largely unaware of how dependent children are on the meals they receive at school to meet their nutritional needs,” Watkins said.

The total number of meals served increased “significantly” during the pandemic due to USDA waivers that allowed summer meals to run through the 2020-21 school year and meals to be picked up.

At United Church of Christ (UCC) churches, Watkins said, the workforce is largely made up of volunteers who go shopping for ingredients, prepare meals and use their vehicles to deliver meals in some cases.

He said the UCC program typically gets between eight and 15 volunteers to prepare the lunches.

However, because these programs receive only a portion of their funding from the Pennsylvania Summer Food Service Program, it has been difficult in some cases to get a program up and running.

The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is a state-run, federally funded program run by the US Department of Agriculture established to “ensure that children continue to have access to nutritious meals when school is not in session,” according to its website.

Craft said programs receiving SFSP reimbursements often have to raise additional funds to cover meal costs.

“(We) received reimbursement for partial costs of the meals we served after submitting paperwork to the state,” Craft said. “We rely on donations from the community and our churches to make up the shortfall, but last year we ended up with a surplus. People were very, very generous.”

Watkins said his group has found ways to overcome small challenges that may arise.

“When we serve children, that’s the most significant part,” Craft said. “The look on their faces and expressions… it’s worth every minute of time we spend.”

The team prepares about 20 meals for each apartment to refrigerate in the trailer, along with extra supplies in case more meals are needed. Depending on the weather, the trailer may see only a handful of children.

participation in the program

An emphasis has also been placed on encouraging children to take advantage of summer food programs available in their area, according to Zach Malavite of Greensburg, the new director of food service in the Southmoreland school district.

The South Westmoreland County School District has offered a summer food program for years, Malavite said, but the challenge this year is to encourage children to use the program.

The district is reverting to a mass meal distribution where participants must eat their meals on the spot. Malavite said this hasn’t been possible for the past two years amid the pandemic, but he fears students are less inclined to make use of the program now that the convenience of the take-out format no longer exists.

Based on a community outreach survey the school district sent out to its members earlier in the year, Malavite estimates that about 100 children will attend the Southmoreland meal distribution per day.

Schools that do not offer summer food programs list resources available to students and families in the area and how to find them.

Malavite said the Southmoreland school district he worked for before began hosting a summer food program last year in light of the pandemic, but it took convincing for the district to join.

“(The pandemic) really influenced a lot of districts to go out of their way to… put food on families’ tables,” Malavite said.

In addition to serving a nutritionally balanced meal, Pogue said, UMCU and its sites seek to foster a positive environment for the children who attend.

“Having a place they can go to eat, kind words, fun things to do, even if it’s just an hour, that’s an hour they wouldn’t normally have,” Pogue said.

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