A significant number of K-12 children in Athens County – more than one in four – experience hunger regularly, and it can be difficult for them to find the nutrition they need outside of the free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts they get at school.
To help feed those children during the summertime when no school lunches are offered, a variety of local non-profits and other organizations have stepped in. Specifically, the Southeast Ohio Foodbank & Regional Kitchen and other community partners provide what SEO Foodbank’s Asti Payne calls its Summer Food Service Program. Payne is development and community relations coordinator with the Foodbank.
The Summer Food Service program has 39 meal sites across four counties in southeast Ohio this summer, providing a free breakfast, lunch or dinner to any child 18 and under, or 19-21 with a disability, each day of the week in most locations. Athens County has eight such feeding sites; seven are located outside Athens city limits, where the rates of children on free- and reduced-lunch programs at school districts are far higher than in the city. There are no income guidelines and no paperwork necessary, Payne said. The sites can be found online at http://hapcap.org/summerfeeding.
“During the summer, child food insecurity increases because school is not in session, where a child may have been guaranteed a nutritious meal through the free/reduced lunch program,” Payne explained.
She noted that the child “food insecurity” rate in Athens County is almost 27 percent. Food insecurity is a USDA measure of people who lack access to nutritionally adequate food (the national food insecurity rate across populations is about 13 percent).
“The child food insecurity rate for Athens County is unfortunately not an anomaly for our 10-county region nor the highest rate,” Payne said. “Our overall average child food insecurity rate is 25.3 percent, with Jackson County having the highest child food insecurity rate of nearly 28 percent.”
The Southeast Ohio Foodbank also operates and provides support for a number of “backpack” programs in Athens County and in the surrounding area, which provide packs of food to K-12 students. For example, with the help of volunteers at First United Methodist Church in Athens, the Foodbank provides 125 children at Trimble Elementary a weekly bag containing two breakfasts, two lunches and two snacks over the weekend when school is not in session. That same amount of food is provided to area agencies who operate other backpack programs; for example, The Nelsonville Food Cupboard purchases similar bags of food at a discounted rate to offer its own backpack program at Nelsonville-York Elementary.
Meanwhile, Athens County Children Services operates its PB&J Project meal distribution service every Thursday from June 8 to July 27 this year from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at six distribution sites in Athens County. That program provides peanut butter, jelly, bread, canned goods and other essentials to children and families.
In a similar vein to the backpack program, the Foodbank also operates a Weekend Meals program (made possible with a partnership between the Ohio Association of Food Banks and multiple Ohio state government organizations), Payne said. It provides six “kid-friendly,” shelf-stable meals to children at the Southeast Ohio Foodbank’s summer feeding sites on Fridays; this summer, about 1,200 such “weekend bags” will be distributed by the SEO Foodbank each week.
In addition, a Rural Summer Meals program specifically targets families in more rural areas in the Southeast Ohio Foodbank’s network.
“In order to overcome transportation and geographic barriers, families receive a weekly box of 11 shelf-stable meals for each child in the household, for nine weeks during the summer,” Payne said. “We currently operate this program for families with children enrolled in Nelsonville-York Local, Trimble Local and Morgan County Local school districts. We still have openings for this program and families can call 740-385-6813 to enroll.”
MEANWHILE, a number of local agencies have banded together to fund a position shared between their offices to attack the issue of accessibility to nutritional, local food.
Carrie Carson is the Food Partners access coordinator with local agencies ACEnet, Rural Action and Community Food Initiatives. Her position is funded through a grant from the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation of Nelsonville.
Carson said the goal of the food-access program is to “accelerate the amount of local food” that is getting into communities with low food and low nutritional food access in Appalachia.
To that end, Rural Action started its Farm to School program in 2004, which provides local food to area schools to use in their lunches, and added a partnership with Hocking College’s culinary program in 2010. In knife-skill classes in that program, students learn about local foods and cut up food purchased at the Chesterhill Produce Auction in Morgan County to provide to area K-12 schools. That Farm to Schools program also has a school garden program operated by CFI that helps students maintain gardens at schools across Athens County and teaches them how to grow their own food.
Carson also noted that two area elementary schools each year make a trip to the Chesterhill Produce Auction in Morgan County to learn about things like growing food, composting and cooking with local food.
Still, she said, plenty of barriers get in the way of providing healthy, local food in area schools’ lunches. Not much is going into schools’ lunches at this point.
“It’s still a very small amount; less than 5 percent, I’d say,” Carson explained.
Schools are on very tight budgets when it comes to food purchasing, she said, and often the schools don’t have the staff or training to allow them to work with fresh foods.
“A lot of the schools end up using frozen and packaged foods for this reason,” Carson said, noting that a lot of schools have sold off the equipment that allowed them to be able to cook from scratch.
While plenty of work still has to be done, Carson said she hopes that more local food can continue to flow to local schools. To that end, a number of area non-profits held a “Farm to School” conference in 2016 that provided training to area schools on local food procurement, food safety and food service training, curriculum, and plenty of other topics.