Thousands of children in the Midlands won’t have to go hungry this summer, thanks to the launch of an annual summer meal programs at schools, community centers and other locations.
After serving more than 170,000 meals to children last summer, Richland 1 announced Thursday it plans to expand its free summer meal service, which is federally funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was not known Thursday how many more meals and snacks would be provided by the district.
“What this program is really about is making sure that our children have proper nutrition to fuel not only their bodies but their minds during the most important years of their development,” said Richland 1 school board member Beatrice King. “And especially during those two-and-a-half months in the summer, we want to make sure there isn’t an abrupt change in what they eat.”
Through the summer meal program, any child age 18 and younger can walk into any feeding site and receive a free lunch and, in some cases, breakfast and snacks. In addition to Richland 1, other Midlands school districts, among them Richland 2, Lexington-Richland 5 and Lexington 1, also offer the federally funded free summer meal program. A number of churches, parks and community organizations also serve summer meals.
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South Carolina has more than 870 approved meal sites through the Summer Food Service Program.
Notable community leaders were on hand Thursday to kick off the Summer Food Service Program at Richland 1’s Carver-Lyon Elementary, where summer school students gathered in the cafeteria to participate in a play activity led by former Carolina Panthers player Leonard Wheeler before being served bagged lunches.
USC women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley spoke briefly about the importance of free meal services, as she herself benefited from similar programs growing up in northern Philadelphia, she said.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said he wants to make sure every city park is signed up as a meal site.
“This effort is led by the heart,” Benjamin said.
While the summer meals are offered to any child who wants to receive them, they serve an especially important role in bridging the summer gap for children who receive free and reduced lunches during the school year. More than 500,000 children live in poverty in South Carolina, and many of them will be at greater risk of food insecurity as schools let out for the summer.
Last year, USDA regional administrator Robin Bailey said, more than 21 million children in the United States received free or reduced price school lunches, but only 3.4 million had access to free meals during the summer. The USDA hopes this year to expand the number of meals served nationwide through the Summer Food Service Program by 10 million.
“As long as children are hungry,” Bailey said, “we have work to do.”