SEBRING – During the 2013-14 school year, more than two-thirds of Highlands County students got free or reduced lunches to help their families supplement their incomes.
So when the summer months come and school lunchrooms close, those students still need a hand or hands getting food on their tables and nutrition into their systems. In many cases, food banks, non-profit organizations and civic groups help stir the pot and use federal funds to get one to two meals a day to children who otherwise may miss them.
According to records from Highlands County School District, out of 12,221 free or reduced lunch applications for the 2013-14 school year, 8,201 got free lunch, 67 percent, and 793 received reduced lunch, 6 percent.
To help supplement meals in the summer, for the second year, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the non-profit Florida Impact has created “Summer BreakSpot,” a program that provides nutritional food to children at local sites around various counties.
The program funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is also administered by the Florida Division of Food, Nutrition and Wellness. Summer BreakSpot’s intent is to bridge the gap in nutrition during the summer months by serving nutritious meals to children 18 years and younger while school is not in session.
Last year, the program served 12 million meals to 300,000 Florida children with USDA reimbursing the state $29.5 million for those meals.
“The need really goes up during the summer months,” said Rebecca Brislain, executive director of the Florida Association of Food Banks in Tallahassee. “Since the kids are home, that’s two, three, four or more meals per day their families have to come up with. It really adds up.”
Brislain, who works out of Ft. Myers, said families end up using food banks as additional resources. The problem is food bank donors tend to donate most during holiday seasons and forget about the summer.
“When kids are getting free-reduced meals ag school, they’re just receiving them at school; at home, getting them meals is a strain on the families’ food budgets.”
Erin Gillespie, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the state and school districts, non-profits and religious and community groups are working to broaden the number of places where children can get balanced meals and summer enrichment activities.
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Summer BreakSpot has 3,400 locations statewide such as recreation centers and churches or community outreach centers.
In Highlands County, the program additionally functions through daycare centers, churches, Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) programs, migrant programs in the middle and high schools and even cheerleading and sports camps, said Martha Brown, Highlands County School District food services director.
From Venus to Avon Park, Brown said 50 to 70 sites are used as Summer BreakSpot and meal sites.
Brown said for over 20 years, Highlands County has relied on federal USDA funding to get breakfasts and lunches to children during the summer. A staff of about 35 full- and part-time school district employees, including administrative staff, work getting meals out.
Brown said the first sites would be up and running Monday and Tuesday and go on until Aug. 1 based on the sites’ needs.
“We’ve had no problems with it (Summer BreakSpot), except we get tired. We do business 12 months out of the year and feed students all but four weeks out of the year,” said Brown.
According to a 2013 Feeding America “Map the Meal Gap” study, 21.6 percent of children in the United States are “food-insecure” -- their households are concerned food will run out before there is income to buy more. The study showed in Florida, 25.5 percent of children are food-insecure, about I in 4.
Out of Florida’s almost 2.7 million public-school students, about 1.6 million, are eligible for free and reduced-cost meals, according to the Florida Hunger Data Center.
Participation in summer food programs nationwide are also increasing nationwide.
In 2013, for the first time in a decade, the number of low-income children eating summer meals saw a large increase year-over-year, according to a recent report released by the Food Research and Action Center. Nearly three million children participated in the summer nutrition programs in July 2013, an increase of 161,000 children, or 5.7 percent, from July 2012.
Around Highlands County, in addition to Summer BreakSpot, each Wednesday, Sebring’s Heartland Food Reservoir Warehouse -- a centralized food bank for local food pantries -- distributes packages of non-perishable foods and drinks to Memorial Elementary School, Sebring; Lake Country Elementary, Lake Placid; and Park Elementary School, Avon Park, to help children from 3 to 12 years old get food for the weekends.
Their effort is through the Elementary Backpack Program, which fills and distributes packages of non-perishable foods and drinks to help children from 3 to 12 years old.
“The main thing about Summer BreakSpot is to make sure meals are available to kids during the summer, as well,” said Brislain. “And people need to remember the food banks during the summer.”
For information, see www.summerfoodflorida.org or call 211 for the United Way Helpline.