LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (June 15, 2012) -- Too often we report the negative news, but great things are happening in your community each day.
During a kickoff event for the Summer Food Service Program, First Lady Ginger Beebe encouraged families who rely on school lunch and breakfast during the school year to take their children to one of hundreds of sites across Arkansas that offer free meals and snacks during the summer for children 18 or younger.
The First Lady joined the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS), the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the Arkansas No Kid Hungry® campaign and a diverse group of partners at Penick Boys & Girls Club on Thursday to raise awareness of the program. The summer meals programs at Penick Boys & Girls Club, along with five other boys and girls clubs in Pulaski and Saline Counties, are sponsored by the Arkansas Food Bank.
"For many children, summertime means food, friends and fun. For families who count on school breakfast and lunch, however, the summer months can be stressful, and family food budgets have to be stretched even further," Mrs. Beebe said. "These programs provide a place for children to get a healthy meal without cost and spend time with friends so they can thrive in the summer."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) pays for summer meals that are served across Arkansas at programs similar to school lunch and breakfast programs, except that meals are free to all children who come to a summer meals site and are ages 18 and under. Share Our Strength's Center for Best Practices reports that in Arkansas, only 14 percent of children who receive a free or reduced-price lunch during the school year participated in free summer meal programs in 2011.
The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, in partnership with Governor Beebe's office, DHS and Share Our Strength, are working to connect more children and teens to programs that provide summer meals at no cost.
"We are working to make sure organizations across the state are ready to welcome kids to sites for free summer meals," said Dr. William Lackey, Program Administrator for DHS. "By making certain sites are available for kids and families and helping to spread the word about free summer meals, we are one step closer to ending childhood hunger."
New findings show that Arkansas, which once ranked number one in the country for child food insecurity, now ranks 9th in the nation with 27.8 percent of children in the state at risk of hunger. While the need for programs like free summer meals is great in Arkansas, a lack of awareness about the program, stigma and transportation barriers are just a few of the obstacles families face when utilizing the free summer meals programs, according to recent focus groups in Little Rock and Pine Bluff conducted by Share Our Strength.
"Summer meals programs are more important than ever before. With families struggling to make ends meet and with schools closed, children are at their most vulnerable. Families also face the stress of providing safe, supervised and affordable places for kids and teens to socialize, play and continue to learn during the summer," said Bill Shore, Founder and CEO of Share Our Strength, the national organization working to end childhood hunger.
Many summer meals sites, which are registered with the USDA, also offer learning and recreational activities that are fun, so that children and teens can eat a healthy meal while staying active and spending time with friends.
Program details include the following:
-Meals are FREE to children who come to a summer meals site and are 18 years of age or younger ;
-Food served follows USDA nutrition guidelines and meals are paid for by the USDA;
-Summer meals sites are at schools, churches, community centers and other safe, supervised places;
-Many sites offer learning and recreational activities that children of all ages can participate in so they can get a healthy meal and take part in activities offered;
-Parents don't need to apply to the program or show proof of income to get a free summer meal for their children. They can just take their child to a summer meals site in their community; sites are located in areas where at least 50 percent of children are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.
"Our goal is to connect more kids than ever before to the summer meals program," said Kathy Webb, Executive Director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. "We're doing this by working with field managers to help recruit summer meals sites and to raise awareness in targeted communities about the program. We're also working with Share Our Strength to distribute more than $174,000 in grants to more than 75 organizations this year to help build capacity for summer meals programs."
Last year in Arkansas, working with DHS, the Arkansas No Kid Hungry campaign increased the number of summer food sites from 339 in 2010 to 440 in 2011 and expanded the program to 13 additional counties in Arkansas. That effort increased participation by 15 percent. The campaign awarded more than $15,000 in grants to 15 organizations to increase the availability of transportation to shuttle children to summer food programs.
The Arkansas No Kid Hungry campaign is generously sponsored by lead sponsor Walmart, sponsor Weight Watchers® and supporter Tyson Foods. The Arkansas No Kid Hungry campaign's efforts are part of Share Our Strength's national No Kid Hungry campaign. Share Our Strength's national No Kid Hungry efforts are supported by Share Our Strength core partners ConAgra Foods Foundation, Food Network and Walmart.
Summertime should be a stress-free time for parents and children, full of food, friends and fun. Free summer meals can help. Families can learn more or find a site near them by going to DHS.Arkansas.gov/DCCECE/SNP/ or by calling 1-1-888-4KID4AR or they can text "FoodAR" to 877-877 find a site near them.