COLUMBUS, Ohio - Summer officially starts Friday, but summer meal sites in Ohio already are busy fueling hungry children.
Through the Summer Food Service Program, nearly 1,400 schools, churches, community centers and other host sites are providing free meals and snacks to children who live in low-income neighborhoods.
Heidi Keween is human services manager of the Northwestern Ohio Community Action Commission, which runs sites in five counties. She says her agency is thankful to have the help of about a dozen AmeriCorps VISTA Summer Associates, who work directly in the field.
"They're seeing the need, not only in one location but in multiple locations," Keween relates. "They can make sure that the program is doing what it set out to do and heading off any certain issues or maybe taking advantage of where we see a need."
VISTA summer associates serve for about eight weeks, and their duties include assisting in meal preparation and service, organizing activities, recruiting volunteers and mentoring youths.
Hunger impacts about one in five Ohio children, and the Summer Food Service Program distributed more than 4 million meals in 2018.
Through the governor's summer meals programs, many sites also distribute take-home weekend meals. And Keween says families are grateful for the assistance.
"It puts food in their home that maybe they haven't had the time to get," she points out. "The kids - they're excited - the bag is going to them, they're taking ownership of that bag. So they don't have to wait for their family to go shopping. It's theirs already. "
Besides providing nutritious food for children, meal sites also offer enrichment programming.
Keween says her agency partners with local organizations on various camp-like activities to keep kids engaged.
"So we'll have one craft table available at all times for children who want to actually sit and do hands on, and are a little more quiet," she explains. "And then we have a recreational activity for those who are ready to go and want to really get out there and socialize and rev it up. And we have some educational activities."
Summer meals are available to all children ages one to 18 attending the program, without registration or application.
Sites can be located by calling 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or online at education.ohio.gov/KidsEat
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