Only 10 percent of the children in the state of Nebraska who are eligible for the summer meals program actually take advantage of it.
Hunger Free Heartland is out to change that by spreading the word about its Summer Food Service Program.
Sue Arment, Director for Hunger Free Heartland, says the program is open to kids ages 1-18. There are no ID checks and no paperwork or documentation is required. Children can simply go to one of the participating sites and eat.
“First of all, we know that in the summer it’s really a struggle for some families to feed their children, especially those that have been dependent on the free and reduced lunch program during the school year. There was a study done recently that showed families are now spending an average of more than $300 a month on food,” said Arment.
The USDA regulates the meals served through the Summer Food Service Program. Arment said that means the meals are nutritious and offer kids proper portion control. It also means that the USDA reimburses the sponsors of each open site for all the meals served.
She said the Summer Food Service Program is run similar to the National School Lunch Program.
In addition to making sure kids get the proper nutrition, many of the open sites are also offering them activities throughout the summer. Arment feels this makes it easer for children to go back to school in the fall and be successful from an academic perspective.
Hunger Free Heartland is a coalition that was convened a little over three years ago by the ConAgra Foods Foundation after the company discovered that childhood hunger was a really big issue in Nebraska.
According to Arment, ConAgra decided they wanted to do something so they put together a group of nonprofit leaders in the community and the result was the coalition of Hunger Free Heartland, which launched in 2010. She says the group is comprised of many different entities from private companies and nonprofit groups to government organizations and schools.
Hunger Free Heartland’s primary mission is to be a catalyst to change by collaborating on solutions with the community to end childhood hunger.
Oddly enough, Arment said there is actually a strong link between hunger and obesity. She said they are two sides of the same coin and that Hunger Free Heartland is trying to highlight awareness about the connection between hunger and obesity.
“What we’ve found is that, in many cases, parents struggle with buying food so they opt to buy nutrient-poor food (which is less expensive) so we find that many of our hungry children are actually overweight or obese. Through the summer meal program we are really trying to get them to eat healthier meals with realistic serving sizes,” Arment said.
The Summer Food Service Program is offered at more than 220 sites across the state, with almost half here in the Omaha metro area. Some sites offer meals in conjunction with summer school while others offer programs like reading or recreational activities. It all depends on where the children go.
And for those kids who cannot make it to the sites, Hunger Free Heartland offers its Kids’ Cruisin’ Kitchen, which will come to them.
Arment is proud of the program, now in its third year.
“In many cases our children struggle with getting to a location. Transportation can be a huge issue. Some parents don’t want them walking long distances (from a safety perspective), which is understandable. So we are trying to reach them where they can easily access it,” she said.
Kids’ Cruisin’ Kitchen is a collaboration among the Food Bank for the Heartland, Salvation Army and Hunger Free Heartland. The three work together to bring meals to areas that are underserved.
Meals are loaded onto disaster relief trucks and are passed out by volunteers at various locations. Each truck hits three sites a day. Arment said the trucks travel from places like Highland Park and Plattsmouth to Crestview and Millard. Last year, Kids’ Cruisin’ Kitchen served more than 10,000 meals to children. And this year they hope to increase that total.
The best way to find open sites for meals is to call 2-1-1 on the telephone and Spanish language support is available. Arment said there’s also a list of sites at hungerfreeheartland.org. Additionally, an updated list is sent out each week from the Department of Education. Alternatively, you can text “free food” to 877877 to get information.
“There are so many benefits to the Summer Food Service Program, including the healthy nutrition the kids will receive. And the enrichment programs are awesome because kids can continue learning over the summer, not to mention the social interaction with their peers and other adults. It’s just a great program and not enough kids are taking advantage of it. That’s why we are trying to raise awareness,” said Arment.
For more information, visit hungerfreeheartland.org.