Summer free food programs for kids

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- You've probably heard "there's no such thing as a free lunch." But this summer, for some Valley children in need, there is a free lunch, breakfast and dinner.

So many Arizona students attend school not only to get an education, but to get daily nutrition, which can make the summer season bittersweet for those kids skipping meals, spending the day hungry.

“Last year we fed about 3,000 meals a day during the summer, and this year, during school year, we served 9,000, so you wonder where the other 6,000 kids are eating,” said Richard Hall, Director of Food Service at Roosevelt School District. “We knew we had to do a better job of reaching out to the communities and capture those meals missed.”

In the Roosevelt School District, where 94 percent of the student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch, the challenge is reaching all those students during the summer months. The hope is the district’s new food truck will help track them down.

“We will go to specific locations every day and stay as long as it takes to feed those children,” said Hall.

The truck can handle all prep work and cooking and can turn out 350 to 400 meals at a time. Then it re-loads and heads back out. The hope is the "cool factor" of the food truck helps cut down on some of the stigma sometimes attached to free lunch programs.

“Just to see the kids face light up, when they can eat through the window like the adults do, it's really something special for them,” said Hall. In addition to the food truck the district will be serving meals at eight schools and 11 other off-site locations.

The goal is to serve some 250 thousand meals this summer. Even adults accompanying the kids can get the same meal for just a dollar. The summer food service program (SFSP) is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Child Nutrition Program and is available to any school district or non-profit that has identified a high-needs area where the student population is at least 50 percent free or reduced lunch eligible.

81,800,359 free meals were served to Arizona students during the 2012-2013 school year. 4.1 million meals were served during the summer of 2013. This year there is a push to reach many more students and serve even more meals.

"Our goal is to serve all the way up to the start of the new school year so when the kids come back the first two weeks they're not just thinking about filling their stomachs; they are thinking about learning and getting an education," said Hall.

This year the nonprofit “Plenty for All” has partnered with Nutrition One and plans to prepare anywhere from 5 thousand to 6.500 lunches a day in an effort to feed many more children all across the county this summer.

“Arizona served approximately 400,000 students free and reduced lunches during the school year, and last summer we were only able to reach 65,000 of those students,” said Melissa Bailey, Executive Director of Plenty for All.

The non-profit will be operating 71 different locations around the Valley, where kids zero to 18 years old can come and eat for free this summer. No questions asked.

“The USDA wants to feed 20 million more kids than they did last summer,” said Bailey. “I don't know how close we'll get to it but I’m trying to do my part.”

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