For the past month, young students in the Raymore-Peculiar School District have been toting jars of peanut butter and jelly and boxes of crackers and cereal to school.
If classes hit their goal of donated food, there’s a Popsicle party in it for them. But most children probably don’t realize what the donation of food really means — full cupboards this summer for some of their classmates.
“We knew there were kids who could go hungry,” said Jodie Huston, executive director of the Raymore-Peculiar Public School Foundation. “So we’re stocking the pantry.”
The fear of summer hunger lingers across the country as the school year winds down and the guaranteed two meals a day for some low-income children go away. That’s why officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been touring the country to encourage more community centers, libraries, schools, churches and other groups to offer summer food programs.
Since January, USDA officials have focused on increasing the number of students receiving meals over the summer. They have put special emphasis on 11 states — Missouri among them — where the gap is largest between the number of kids who receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year and the number served by summer programs.
“When kids come back … if they’ve had a summer of uncertainty, that child will be a lot less settled than a child that’s been regularly exposed to food during that time,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. “Principals and teachers tell me how important this is.”
In Missouri last year, about 365,000 children received free or reduced-price lunches each day during the school year. But during the summer, an average of just 27,000 children were fed each day at 570 locations, USDA numbers show. At a summer service rate of less than 10 percent, Missouri’s numbers have to improve, Concannon said.
“There are some states that serve 20 percent,” he said. “I’d like to see Missouri feeding 35,000 (in the summer) at least.”
In Kansas, roughly 189,000 children a day received free and reduced-price lunches at school, and a little more than 20,000 were served by USDA-sponsored summer feeding programs.
Harvesters, the Kansas City food bank that serves 26 counties in both states, has seen the summer numbers for its Kids Cafe program increase since 2010. In the area the bank serves, more than 100,000 children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, with many eating both breakfast and lunch at school.
“In the summer, somehow the parents have to make up for those meals,” said Valerie Nicholson-Watson, president and CEO of Harvesters. “It’s a big issue.”
The food bank has significantly increased the number of summer feeding sites, going from 46 in 2010 to 62 planned for this year.
Unlike the school year’s BackSnack programs that serve children up to sixth grade, the Kids Cafe program covers those up to 18 years old.
“We’re going to feed whatever child is hungry,” Nicholson-Watson said.
This summer, Harvesters will help feed children at nine outdoor parks, spray parks and pools; at nine libraries; and in schools and community centers.
April Roy, manager of the Kansas City Public Library’s Bluford Branch, said attendance in some summer library programs will increase because meals will be served at her location from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. each day during the week.
As she prepares for summer, she still remembers two boys from a few years ago. She worked at another library branch, and they came to her together one afternoon because it made them feelbraver.
“Do you have anything to snack on?” one asked. “Do you have any food?”
She didn’t. No food to hand out to hungry kids. But if they came to her now, at Bluford, she’d have something to give them.
Children would ask similar questions in some Raymore-Peculiar schools. Only one elementary school in the district qualifies to receive Harvesters’ weekly backpacks of food during the school year.
“Even though we have schools that don’t qualify, we have individual students who need help,” said Michele Stidham, a Raymore-Peculiar district spokeswoman.
In early 2013, the district’s foundation began providing similar weekend packs of food to a small number of children. This past school year, the foundation increased its Caring About Nutrition program to include children at all the district’s elementary and intermediate buildings.
District leaders know the food is crucial for some families, so even on a snow day earlier this year, a principal and counselor drove to several homes delivering weekend food packs, said Huston of the Raymore-Peculiar foundation.
Then a few months ago, the question came up: What about summer?
“We felt like we needed to do something,” Huston said.
She and other organizers still don’t know how many families will receive packs this summer. This first year is about seeing how many families sign up for the food help and making sure they get it, said Allison Bruflat, a member of the foundation’s board.
“In some ways, I worry we’re not going to be doing enough.”
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Summer hunger programs
Giving help: To help Raymore-Peculiar’s Caring About Nutrition summer program, drop off food to any school in the district or send donations to the Raymore-Peculiar Public School Foundation, P.O. Box 789, Peculiar, MO 64708.
Harvesters continues to need volunteers and donations during the summer months. For more information, go to www.harvesters.org.