Kansas works to increase summer meals participation

For Patricia, a single mom living in Wichita, nothing is more important than her four children. She has a full-time job and works hard to make ends meet, but that doesn’t stop her from worrying about being able to always feed the children healthy meals to support their growth and development.

For the majority of the year, she’s grateful her three older children receive free meals at their school. When the school year ends in May, though, Patricia worries about being able to replace those healthy meals and how she’ll be able to provide for all of her children during the summer months.

Across Kansas, parents share Patricia’s concern, as one in four Kansas children live in poverty, according to Kansas Action for Children. To try and combat this hunger gap during the summer months, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in conjunction with the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE), leads a summer program offering meals to any child at a variety of locations.

“Summer is when food insecurity among children increases dramatically,” according to Audrey Rowe, USDA Administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service. “With our partners in the states, we’re looking to address that gap.”

Despite the program, for many Kansas children, this time of hunger persists. During the school year, nearly 200,000 children statewide qualify for free or reduce-price meals. During the summer, just 7 percent of those children participate in the free summer meal program, placing Kansas 50th in the nation for participation.

It’s a fact that is unacceptable to many Kansas leaders, as more than 200 individuals representing school districts, parks and recreation departments, faith-based communities, food banks, and nonprofit organizations gathered in Wichita this month to discuss the barriers and potential ways to feed more children.

Cheryl Johnson, Director of Child Nutrition and Wellness for KSDE, spoke at the event, and said she’s confident raising awareness and directly engaging communities with the highest need can help reverse this trend.

“No child should grow up hungry in Kansas,” Johnson said. “We can end childhood hunger by connecting kids to effective nutrition programs like school breakfast and summer meals.”

Johnson also announced an ambitious goal for summer meal participation in 2015, stating KSDE’s intention to increase participation in the state by 20 percent compared to the number of meals served in 2014.

One primary strategy for achieving this 20 percent increase will be increasing the number of sites providing the meals for children. Last year, Kansas had more than 350 sites providing meals, but more than half of those sites were in the state’s four largest counties. More than 40 counties in Kansas had no sites at all.

The needs of the state have caught the attention of nationwide leaders on the issue. Administrator Rowe traveled from Washington, D.C., to join in the discussion, citing the importance of improving the participation in Kansas. She came away impressed by the summit and encouraged about future participation in Kansas.

“The enthusiasm and commitment was evident (at the summit),” Rowe said. “I saw participants excited to be a part of the solution and make sure Kansas kids don’t go hungry this summer.”

Joining KSDE in sponsoring and organizing the summit was the Kansas Health Foundation (KHF), which has invested more $4 million in school health and wellness initiatives for the state. According to KHF president and CEO Steve Coen, ensuring children can receive healthy meals during the summer months is another part of the organization’s commitment to Kansas children.

“These aren’t just numbers and rankings, these are children in our communities,” Coen said. “It will take a lot of partners pulling together to make real change happen, but we see the need and know it’s time to step up and help these Kansas families.”

If more sites come on board and more children participate, fewer parents like Patricia will feel the uncertainty and worry about feeding their children during the summer months.

To learn more about this topic, view the official news release. For information on how your organization can become a summer meal site, please visit www.kn-eat.org or call 785-296-2276.

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