Federal program helps close the hunger gap

Mandi Stark, 2, enjoys lunch Wednesday as part of the Summer Food Service Program at Discovery Elementary School. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

Jan Duval, left, and Ruth Tapp serve food to families during the Summer Food Service Program on Wednesday at Discovery Elementary School. Pat Sutphin psutphin@ postregister.com Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

School’s out for the summer, but thousands of children across eastern Idaho and around the state still need lunch.

“There are kids who, all school year, have had that safety net of school meals,” said Heather Plain, food service director at Bonneville Joint School District 93. “But then, in the summertime, their parents don’t know how they’re going to feed them — to me, that’d be very scary. So we want to help.”

And that’s just what the federal Summer Food Service Program aims to do. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program provides free, nutritious meals during the week to any child under 18.

Last year, the program served up more than 1.3 million meals in the Gem State at more than 300 sites — amounting to about $4.19 million in meal reimbursement funds from the Department of Agriculture.

A designated meal site must have at least 50 percent of children in the surrounding area who qualify for free or reduced price meals. That determination is based on school or census data. Statewide, this past school year, a little more than 48 percent of students qualified for the free and reduced priced meals, said Angela Miller, State Department of Education Summer Food Service Program coordinator.

“These kids really rely quite a lot on the National School Lunch Program and when summer comes and those school lunches are gone, these kids don’t have those resources anymore,” Miller said. “So the Summer Food Program tries to fill that hunger gap in the summer.”

One of this year’s 317 Idaho sites is Discovery Elementary School. It’s one of four District 93-sponsored sites, Plain said. Together, those sites serve about 850 lunches and 300 breakfast meals each day. And no child is turned away.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I don’t qualify for that, so I can’t be there,’” she said. “But we really want every kid to come. It’s a scary thing when there isn’t food in the home, so for those two children who may be in desperate need of meals, we want them to feel safe and that they can come and have a meal to depend on. And if all their neighbor friends are here, they just feel regular, like everybody else.”

Ucon resident Ashley Lindley went to Discovery Elementary School for lunch on Wednesday. She brought her three children, Evan, 7, Saydie, 5 and Charlie, 2. The family stops by at least two days a week, because the kids have baseball practice at the school around the same time. The free meal means Lindley doesn’t have to rush post-practice home to cook.

“It’s really nice to bring them, let them get a nice lunch and I only have to worry about making dinner,” she said. “It works out really nice.”

And that’s another goal of the program.

“We see kids who come on the sidewalk and they’re in their pajamas, their hair isn’t combed and you know this is breakfast,” Plain said. “And then there are parents in the summertime who send their kids and they only need to worry about dinner .… I don’t know individually who isn’t and is getting food, but if we can bring in those who might be having insecurities at home and they come with everyone else, it doesn’t matter — they just blend right in.”

Reporter Kirsten Johnson can be reached at 542-6757.