By Matthew Merchant, Record Courier
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July 12th, 2017
More than 1,100 children throughout Portage County will receive more than 25,000 free meals throughout the summer.
The statewide Summer Food Service Program provides school-age children ages 18 and younger with free meals during the summer break when they no longer have access to school breakfasts and lunches. Thousands of kids in Ohio will take advantage of the program offered through the Ohio Department of Education.
"It's all about getting kids fed," said David Shay, executive director of the Community Action Council of Portage County, the organization that heads the program in Portage. More than 20 locations throughout the county are hosting lunch, along with some dinners and afternoon snacks.
All children in areas with high or complete poverty levels -- including the entirety of the Ravenna City School District, along with parts of Kent, Brimfield and Windham -- are eligible for the free program solely based on their residence. No sign-up is required, either.
"For some of these kids, this may be the only completely nutritious, USDA-approved meal they get during the summer when they're not in school," said Shay. "The meals are based on the menu and federal guidelines, so each meal has certain amounts of protein and fruit, all kids get a milk, and there's often vegetables as well."
The meals are delivered on-site, kept refrigerated or on ice, and must be eaten on-site before the kids leave. But often, they're encouraged to stay, Shay said, because most locations in Portage also offer some kind of program. For example, Reed Memorial Library in Ravenna has a summer reading program.
Children with disabilities and approved individualized education programs can participate through age 21.
State education officials said the food program is intended to help children return to school ready to learn by providing nutritious meals that will continue a child's physical and social development during the break from school. Research has shown that children who miss breakfast and lunch are more likely to be sick, inattentive and score lower on achievement tests.
Last year, more than 3.95 million meals were served to Ohio children through the program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Portage County's program is organized by the CAC, as well as Family & Community Services, Inc. and Lovelight Inc.
President Donald Trump's proposed federal budget makes a $1.2 billion cut to federal food programs like the Summer Food Service. Shay said organizations like the CAC are always looking for other financial sources to help fund the program.
"The meals program is a reimbursement program. But there's just not enough funding. We get $75,000 for the summer and that's got to last us from June through the end of August. We spend all of that and more," Shay said. "It's an excellent program. And we may not have the stats to prove that a healthy meal improves academics in the classroom, but it sure helps the kids in the community who otherwise might not eat."
The CAC contracts with Innovation Foods in Twinsburg to provide the meals for the program.
All of the Portage County sites are open weekdays, with most serving a free lunch, while some locations offer dinner or breakfast.
Among the Portage County sites serving free meals each weekday are: The Community Action Council Youth Center, Community Estates and Harvest Woods Apartments, Skeels Matthew, Ravenna Parks and Recreation city park, Reed Memorial Library, Terrill Suites and the King Kennedy Center in Ravenna. In Kent, the Kent Recreation Center, Whispering Pines Mobile Home Park, and Indian Valley, Summit Gardens, Townsquare Villas and Athena Drive apartments complexes.
In Windham, programs are available the the Renaissance Family Center and New Hop Baptist Church.
To find a location and meal times, call 1-866-348-6479, visit education.ohio.gov/KidsEat or download The Ohio Department of Education Mobile App for free.