Two local organizations are feeding youth with limited access to food during the summer months.
Soldotna’s Joyce K. Carver Memorial Library serves 2-3 meals per week and the Kenai Peninsula Boys and Girls Club serves two meals and one snack per day to children 18 and under around the Central Kenai Peninsula.
“You can’t expect kids to show back up to school on the first day ready to go and participate if they are not getting nutritious meals year round,” said Food Bank of Alaska’s Child Nutrition Manager Dynasti Otis.
Both organizations are able to provide their meals with federal reimbursements from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, operated by the state of Alaska.
The Soldotna library applies for sponsorship through the Food Bank of Alaska, Otis said. The food bank drops off meals to 50-55 sites statewide during the summer months, she said.
Many of the sites qualify as rural areas, which is common among communities that receive USDA reimbursements, Otis said. The Soldonta library qualifies for the program using census track data for low income areas, she said.
According to the Food Bank of Alaska, 56,000 children statewide lose critical access to free or reduced meals when school lets out for the summer.
Otis said children who rely on school meals have almost 90 days during the summer months when they don’t have access to quality food.
“We operate under the idea that ‘hunger doesn’t take a vacation,’” Otis said.
A site that submits an application with Food Bank of Alaska must meet the requirement that 50 percent of children in the area qualify for free or reduced meals through standards stipulated by the National School Lunch Program or be deemed to be feeding a majority of Alaska Native or migrant youth, Otis said. Alaska reached that threshold statewide in 2015 for the first time, with half of all students that attend a school with a meal program meeting eligibility criteria.
“The Boys and Girls Clubs served over 8,800 meals to kids during the month of June and expect to serve approximately the same amount of meals during the month of July,” said Executive Director of the Kenai Peninsula Boys and Girls Clubs Heather Schloeman.
The Boys and Girls Clubs uses the data gathered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Nutritional Services for USDA reimbursable, reduced, free and paid lunches, afterschool snacks and breakfasts to apply for the summer meals reimbursements. During the most recent school year 38 percent of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District students were eligible for free and reduced meals, said Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Student Nutrition Administrator Dean Hamburg.
Schloeman said she is worried about the future of the afterschool meal program at the Soldotna Clubhouse located at Redoubt Elementary. They will not be able to serve snacks or suppers at this site through Child Nutrition Programs, as they have for the past five years, due to no longer being eligible based on current area eligibility criteria. She encourages people to educate themselves and lend support to proposed legislation that supports summer meal programs.
Groups like the Alaska Food Coalition and state officials are working to make access to the reimbursements even easier.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, helped introduce The Summer Meals Act of 2015 to the United States Congress in February. The bill would lower the eligibility rate for free and reduced summer meals to 40 percent.
Youth Services Librarian KJ Hillgren, who “was lucky enough to inherit the program,” at the Soldotna library said between three and eight children come to each of the offered meals. She said she wishes more were able to utilize the services.
Anyone 18 or under who comes for food may eat as much as they need to feel full, Hillgren said.
“The food is good and the milk is cold,” Hillgren said.
Each meal at the Soldotna library and Boys and Girls Club sites contains a grain, fruit, vegetable, milk and protein item.
“The food program helps to ensure that all kids have access to healthy meals during the summer months,” Schloeman said. “We also hope that the meals help draw kids into programs such as ours that are offering academic and enrichment summer activities in a safe and supervised environment.”
Otis said it is also significant that the organizations that offer balanced meals have activities for children as well, which is equally important for maintaining good health.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.