BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — For about one-third of local schoolchildren, summer vacation isn't just a break from classes and homework.
The break from school is also a two-month period when 37 percent of Monroe County School Corporation students and 35 percent of Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corporation students don't have access to the school's nutrition program, which provides free or reduced breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack during school hours.
"In the summer, they're potentially at a nutritional disadvantage, and their family's financial budgets and food budgets are stretched tighter," Vicki Pierce, executive director of Community Kitchen of Monroe County, told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1nAsGuj ). "Now, they're eating breakfast, lunch and dinner and everything else at home."
During the school year, Community Kitchen's Backpack Buddies program sends healthful food home with low-income children to eat over the weekend. Once school is out and kids ditch their backpacks, Community Kitchen has to find new ways to feed these students. And the most effective way to connect kids to healthy meals mimics a summer tradition: running after an ice cream truck.
Since 1997, Community Kitchen's Summer Food Service Program has delivered breakfast and lunch food to low-income neighborhoods "ice cream truck style," as Pierce called it. Community Kitchen staff members and volunteers drove two vans through Crestmont, Lenzy Hayes, Walnut Woods and other neighborhoods, stopping every few houses or apartment complexes for children to run to the van to receive a meal prepared by Community Kitchen volunteers.
"We could cover a lot of ground really quickly," Pierce said. "You get to see firsthand the kids who are affected, and you get to see how happy they are to see you."
This style of food distribution, however, is not congruent with how the state provides grants and funding to programs that fight childhood hunger during the summer. In order to be reimbursed for food provided to low-income children, the state requires meals to be distributed at a central location such as a school or community building. Using a central location allows the state to send monitors to that site to ensure that state dollars are only being used to feed children, Pierce said.
In an urban area, finding an easily-accessible place for entire neighborhoods of children to gather for a meal is a great way to serve as many kids as possible, Pierce said. But in Monroe County, finding sites for meal distribution has been more difficult.
"When you have an area like ours that is semi-rural, those kids can't get themselves to congregate sites if it's not in their neighborhood," Pierce said. "So, if we don't take food to those kids, they don't get that food. It's a very frustrating barrier."
To comply with state regulations to receive grant funding, Community Kitchen staff and volunteers would set out picnic blankets in open areas in low-income neighborhoods and encourage children to sit to eat their breakfast or lunch. The nonprofit could ask for state funds to reimburse meals eaten at these central locations, about 45 percent of meals served. Kids who took food and left to return home were not funded by the state.
Still, the state and Community Kitchen had difficulty coming to an agreement on the best way to serve local youth.
"In one instance, a monitor actually told a child, 'If you're not going to stay here and eat, you can't have that food,'" Pierce said. "That single moment was the tipping point for us."
So this year, the Summer Food Service Program will distribute food two ways: sit-down breakfasts and lunches at five central community locations, and four "ice cream truck style" food routes.
"We're getting to those kids because that's where they are, and they're the kids who need the food," Pierce said.
But that means Community Kitchen needs to raise approximately $8,000 to make up for the meals that can't be paid for in part with state funding aid, Pierce said. Community Kitchen's spring fundraising campaign is also down about $8,000 for compared to money raised last year, leaving a $16,000 gap in funding.
Community Kitchen distributes more than 11,000 meals during the summer, and an additional 25,000 meals and snacks for local youth organizations like Girls Incorporated of Monroe County and the Boys and Girls Club.
"When I watched how big those numbers are, I am touched and glad we're there," said Libby DeVoe, who has been a Community Kitchen volunteer for more than a decade. "I'm just blown away by the dedication, the creativity and the patience of the staff."
At each of the distribution sites, children receive either breakfast or lunch. Community Kitchen does not have the resources to provide both meals for every location. For breakfast, children receive cereal or a granola bar, a piece of fruit and milk. DeVoe volunteers once a week at Community Kitchen to bake homemade biscuits, which the kids receive two days a week in flavors such as chocolate chip and cheddar cheese.
"In a perfect world, we would be able to give even more nutritious food, but we do what we can with what they've got," DeVoe said.
Lunch is a lunchmeat or peanut butter sandwich, a fresh fruit or vegetable, a snack item and milk.
"It's cold food . but it is nutritionally all the components," Pierce said. "I always wish we could be better at it. But I think given the way we have to do it to get to the kids we want to get to, I think we're doing pretty well."
Community Kitchen is accepting food and money donations to its Summer Food Service program. Checks can be mailed to Community Kitchen, PO Box 3286 Bloomington, IN, 47402-3286. Donations can also be made online at monroecommunitykitchen.com.
Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com
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