Nearly 74,000 free meals will be given to students and disabled adults across four counties this summer.
And that’s just in Richland 1, which is coordinating 126 sites in schools, churches, parks and child care centers as part of the annual Seamless Summer Feeding Program
The program is just one of many federally funded free lunch – and, in many cases, breakfast and snack – programs filling bellies across the Midlands. Other school districts, including Richland 2, Lexington 1, Lexington 2, Lexington 3 and Lexington-Richland 5, also offer free summer meal programs, along with community organizations like the United Way of Kershaw County.
South Carolina has a higher rate of child food insecurity than the national rate of 22.4 percent, with an estimated 27.4 percent of children in the state without consistent access to adequate food, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit organization supporting food banks and “food rescue” efforts. Child food insecurity is estimated below the national average in Richland County, at 19 percent, but closer to the national average in Lexington and Kershaw counties, at 21.6 percent and 23.2 percent, respectively.
At the Edgewood Foundation Summer Enrichment Camp, director Alice Jones sees area kids’ needs firsthand.
“Most of these children are from low-income, single-parent homes,” Jones said. “When they come here, they’re pretty much starving.”
Jones’ camp has about 80 children, and during breakfast, lunch and snack periods, the doors open for kids who are not enrolled in the camp but are still hungry. Around 20 additional children receive free meals every day, Jones said.
The camp’s lunch and snack is provided through the Richland 1 program, and the camp provides free breakfast for campers and area kids as well.
Richland 1’s summer meal program is among the area’s largest, projecting to serve 6,719 weekday meals through Aug. 16, according to the district, a slight increase over last year. Smaller programs like that run by Lexington 2 expect to serve between 30 and 50 students every Monday through Thursday, the district said.
The programs are run by the Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service and Seamless Summer programs, both designed to provide meals to students in need when school is out of session. The latter, run through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, provides free meals for all children in areas in which at least 50 percent of a school district’s students qualify for free or reduced school lunch.
Students up to age 18 who qualify for free and reduced price meals can simply show up at a designated site to receive a free meal.
Like numbers of students on free and reduced price meals during the school year, summer meal numbers have grown in most cases over the past several years, during the economic downturn.
Lexington-Richland 5, which anticipates feeding 1,000 children each day this summer through Aug. 1 at three district schools, consistently offers feeding programs in the summer and throughout the year in partnership with other organizations.
“We partner with civic and faith-based organizations and other groups to service our community and really try to address the food needs of our families,” said Katrina Goggins, a district spokeswoman.
Johnnie Mae Butler, Richland 1’s kitchen manager who has been overseeing the summer program for nine years, says they are “very much” needed.
“Even during the summer months, this is sometimes the only meal or only healthy meal our students get every day,” Butler said. “Kids look forward to getting these meals every day.”