CINCINNATI — Childhood hunger doesn’t take a vacation.
Just ask Tony Fairhead, executive director of Childhood Food Solutions. He’s been working for the past decade to feed hungry kids in some of Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods. For the growing number of children living below poverty level in Greater Cincinnati, he knows firsthand the number of missed meals summer vacation can leave in its wake.
“Summer break is an especially tough time for food-insecure families,” Fairhead said. “When children are not in school, many are losing access to the only healthy meals they can count on each day.”
An estimated 22 million children receive free or reduced-priced meals during the school year through the National School Lunch Program. It’s a vital program for the more than 100,000 children across the Tri-state living in poverty. But when the federal program takes a summer hiatus, where does that leave them?
It takes a village to help close the summer food gap. Sites across Greater Cincinnati will offer summer food programs in the coming months, and a variety of nonprofit organizations dedicated to tackling hunger will step up their efforts to ensure local kids have access to regular, healthy meals.
Getting Creative to Stop ‘Summer Slide’
The USDA's Summer Food Service Program provides meals to children under 18 at thousands of participating sites in each state. Local schools in low-income areas reopen their doors each summer for breakfast and lunch through the federal program. Many, like Cincinnati Public Schools, also partner with public library systems, churches and recreation centers to help reach as many at-risk children as possible. Most add in educational programming intended to help prevent potential summer learning loss, known as the “summer slide.”
Jessica Shelly, Cincinnati Public Schools’ director of food services, is responsible for providing healthy meals to the school district’s 34,000 students. During the school day, CPS cafeterias serve up about 50,000 meals each day. About 75 percent of the student population qualifies for the federal free/reduced-priced lunch program.
In the summer months, her job gets a lot trickier. The school district partners to feed children at 80 sites throughout its area, but doesn’t come close to reaching the number of kids it does during a typical school day.
“During summer break, (the number of meals) drops to 5,000 to 6,000 a day,” Shelly said. “We wish that number was higher, because we would love to have kiddos dine with us. That way, we know they’re getting healthy food.”
The federal program is invaluable to the children it reaches, Shelly said. But she admits it has limitations. Both the lack of transportation to the sites and caregivers’ insufficient knowledge of the program top the list.
Having the partner sites, including the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (which served nearly 19,000 meals the summer of 2014), helps the school district reach more kids. And the fun, enrichment opportunities the district and its partners provide in conjunction with the meals help draw more participants, Shelly said.
Last year, CPS started delivering meals with its first mobile feeding bus and hopes to secure funding for more to expand its reach. It’s also connecting with more families online and through a new smart phone app called Nutrislice, which provides not just site information, but also daily menus.
Similar efforts are taking place throughout the region.
In Northern Kentucky, the Newport Independent School District has received funding to provide a summer camp focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities. It will run in conjunction with its long-running summer food program.
Similarly, Covington Independent Schools will continue its partnership with local groups to host a summer youth program for K-8 students. The daily program serves meals, while also providing math and reading activities, various themed day camps and field trip opportunities.
Finding What Fits
The Boone County Public Library has partnered with Boone County Schools for years to help provide federally funded meals and literacy-related programming. The library uses its outreach vehicle to deliver the summer program off-site to low-income neighborhoods, and it serves food on-site at its Florence branch.
As the mostly rural county’s poverty rate has increased steadily, the need has increased – especially in Florence, according to Amanda Hopper, the system’s assistant director.
Residents are struggling so much, in fact, entire families started showing up hungry at the library’s summer food program at the Florence branch. But the USDA program is only available for children under 18, and meals can’t be taken home or shared with parents or other caregivers.
Directors ultimately determined they needed additional resources.
“We felt the need in the community was too great,” Hopper said. “We had to come up with some new ideas.”
The library revamped its summer program a bit and has been able to secure grant funding and business partnerships that allow organizers to feed whole families at its Florence location four days per week.
They’ll provide an average of 50 meals each day this summer while also presenting literacy-based lessons that aim to arm caregivers with skills they can use at home.
The funding is also enabling them more flexibility in serving food and programming in poor neighborhoods throughout Boone County with its outreach vehicle.
“If they can’t make it to us, we want to reach out to them,” Hopper said.
The Freestore Foodbank will reach more children this summer as well. It provides summer meals at a handful of sites on both sides of the Ohio River through the assistance of the federal summer food program.
To help close the summer food gap even further, the organization is stepping up its efforts at six local schools with a pilot school pantry initiative. Designed for middle- and high school-aged kids, it provides on-site food pantries at schools with exceptionally high food insecurity rates.
Grants fund the new program for the summer, and additional support is allowing the schools to keep the pantries open year-round.
“Last month the school pantries served 140 households,” said Lauren Flowers, Freestore Foodbank’s director of community partnerships and programs. Organizers expect to serve even more in the coming months, she said.
Finding Their Niche
Despite the national push to get more food into the hands of low-income children during summer break, only one in eight who receive free and reduced-price meals participates in a summer food program, according to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks.
That’s a huge gap to fill – even for the most ambitious local groups fighting childhood hunger.
To put things into perspective, Childhood Food Solutions has broken down the need, just in Cincinnati, by the number of calories roughly 20,000 low-income children need to stay healthy. According to its estimates, based on 1,150 calories a day for breakfast and lunch, 57 weekdays during summer break creates a more than one-billion calorie deficit for the one city alone.
“Over the years, we tried many different ways to get children to summer food program meals, but we were never able to make much of a difference,” Fairhead said. “Eventually, we decided to choose one zip code (45225) and address year-round hunger.”
Once Childhood Food Solutions found its niche, it started making a difference. The group delivers sacks of food to some of the city’s most vulnerable children on days they don’t have access to meals at school.
Not surprisingly, summer is their busy season, according to Fairhead. The sacks are intended for children, but they’re designed to include enough food so they can be shared with families.
“Once we started the program, we quickly realized the character of children is to share food if they have it,” he said. Sacks include sharable, easy-to-eat and staples, like peanut butter, graham crackers and cereal bars.
The program works because it eliminates barriers, Fairhead said.
“Children in need are behind closed doors,” he explained. “If we put food directly into the hands of the children, it’s a sure way to get behind those closed doors.”
Perhaps the most challenging children to reach during the summer months are those experiencing homelessness. Locally, UpSpring (formerly Faces Without Places) answers that call.
UpSpring Summer 360 is a free, summer educational camp specifically for kids, ages 5-12, experiencing homelessness. It focuses on literacy and math instruction, and offers fitness and enrichment activities. The organization provides daily transportation to and from the camp and meals.
The program is held in Cincinnati, where it serves about 100 kids each day. It will expand this summer to the Kenton County School District.
“Our main goal is to prevent summer learning loss,” said Mike Moroski, UpSpring’s executive director. “An important element of that is keeping kids healthy with regular meals.”
Meals for UpSpring Summer 360 are provided by UpSpring partner Whole Again, a local faith-based organization that serves low-income children in Hamilton County. The group served more than 94,000 meals last summer through its Summer Food Enrichment Program, which is supported through the federal food service program.
The organization has 48 partner sites that offer hot, catered meals all summer and all-day programs that include enrichment activities, field trips and fitness activities that lead up to an Olympic-style competition.
“All of our site partners value these kids,” said Pastor Gregory Chandler, who founded the organization 12 years ago. “And that’s the key: Our kids look forward to the summer program every year.”
Whole Again’s growing network of partnerships demonstrates the massive group effort it takes to fight local childhood hunger.
“Food insecurity is everywhere,” Chandler said. “It’s more than any one organization can handle on its own. The number of local children in need is too great.
“To make a difference, it requires broad, diverse partnerships.”