Nearly half of Ohio’s school children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and many of these children do not have access to adequate nutrition during the summer months. This lack of access to adequate nutrition has been linked to poorer academic performance, which can easily perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty.
Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) enables organizations active in low-income communities to offer free meals to children who might otherwise go hungry during the summer break.
SFSP is an outstanding program, but it is not without limitations. Two of the biggest challenges in running any summer feeding program are funding program expenses not covered by the federal government and maintaining adequate staff to operate a successful program.
While SFSP funding makes it possible to operate this initiative, it is simply not enough money to cover the full costs of feeding so many hungry children. For many programs this means less time is spent securing funding, or scaling back the program and reaching fewer children. It can also mean cutting back on the additional enrichment activities that are critical to closing the education gap experienced by low-income children.
165 Helping Hands
As part of its mission to provide food and resources to those in need, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks has partnered with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to provide summer feeding programs across Ohio with the labor resources they need. CNCS granted the association 165 AmeriCorps VISTA summer associates who were dispatched to 40 summer feeding programs.
Each summer associate provides a summer feeding site with eight weeks of full-time support at no cost to the program. This allows programs to stretch the dollars they have to feed more children. It also enables them to conduct additional outreach in the community and provide a more enriching experience at feeding sites.
Across Ohio, the association's 91 VISTA summer associates helped to serve 530,206 meals and brought an additional 1,548 youth into the program at 22 summer feeding programs during 2011, an increase of more than 15% over program year 2010. While final results for summer 2012 are not in yet, there can be little doubt that these numbers will increase given the vital addition of so many summer associates to summer feeding programs across the state.
Keith Barnes served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in 2011 for the National Society for American Indian Elderly at Penobscot Nation in Maine. Recognizing the great benefit of the VISTA program, he currently serves as an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks ShareCorps program and helps administer its VISTA Summer Associates program.