School system temporarily shuts down free meal program -- Gazette.Net


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About 1,500 children who have been relying on free, healthy lunches from the county school system this summer had to find other options last week.

Because many school buildings lacked electricity after the June 29 derecho, Montgomery County Public Schools shut down its free summer meals program on the following Monday and Tuesday, and had to keep it shut down throughout the week in some locations.

As of Friday, one walk-in location still did not have power, according to Erin Kvach, a food service supervisor with the school system.

Although the program does not reach anywhere close to the number of children it could — this school year 32.3 percent of county students, or about 47,000 children, qualified for free and reduced price meals — the impact was still there.

Many families have come to rely on the program for lunch, Kvach said.

“They lost whatever food they had, and not having somewhere to go was a burden,” she said.

Needy families have had worse burdens. In February 2010, during the huge snowstorms, schools were closed for a week, said Marla Caplon, the school system’s director of food and nutrition services.

“Not that being hungry is OK for one day, at all,” Caplon said.

If the power would have been out for longer, Caplon said she would have looked to alternatives, such as setting up drop sites to provide food, as the school system did during the snow storms.

“We apologize,” Caplon said, regarding having to shut down temporarily. “It is our commitment to feed the kids in Montgomery County.”

The free meals program is a federal program, so the school receives reimbursement from the federal government for each meal served.

About 9,000 children will be fed through the program this summer. Free meals are offered at about 114 sites throughout the county, some of them schools, some community centers or other buildings. At 13 of the sites, anyone under 18 is allowed a free meal, no registration required.

The school system is working hard to increase participation in the program, through outreach with the help of a county and school system partnership called Linkages to Learning and nonprofit Share our Strength, Kvach said. Seven walk-in sites opened for the first time this year; there were only six last year.

The school system sent out fliers to students in English and Spanish, posted them in libraries, food banks and other community locations, Caplon said.

In 2011, the school system served 112,255 breakfasts and 155,822 lunches during 50 summer days.

To qualify as a walk-in location, a building must meet requirements for meal preparation, distribution and accountability, have proper capacity and logistics, offer educational, cultural and/or recreational activities, provide supervision and other monitoring and training, maintain proper sanitary conditions, and keep daily records. Also, more than 50 percent of the schoolchildren in the area must qualify for free or reduced price meals. At least one volunteer is needed to run the program, Kvach said.

Although most sites are schools, they don’t have to be. Global Pediatrics, a doctor’s office in Takoma Park is offering the program this summer.

Kvach visited Fox Chapel Elementary School in Germantown on Friday, a walk-in site that the school system added this year.

“When you go to these sites and talk to the parents and kids, you see the need,” she said.

About 70 children on average eat a meal on weekdays at Fox Chapel, said Diana L. Zabetakis, the school’s principal.

That number of visits is high for a first-year site, but Zabetakis wants many more to come. More than half of Fox Chapel students qualify to receive free or reduced priced meals, she said.

“It makes a difference because when they eat, that is one less thing they have to worry about,” Zabetakis said.

To recruit families to the program at Fox Chapel, Zabetakis said school staff drove around the neighborhood and talked to people, passed out fliers, and used Connect Ed, a phone message system.

Ronica Gravette, who lives near Fox Chapel Elementary, took her daughter, niece and grandson to get lunch at the school on Friday.

She said the program is nice for her family, not just because it’s a free meal, but also because the children get to see their friends and get something to do during the day.

Fox Chapel puts on a movie, and a book swap lets children continue reading through the summer.

“We want to feed the mind, body and soul,” said Sherry Moses, the school’s assistant principal. “We want to jump on the fact that we can increase learning over the summer.”

Gravette’s daughter said the lunch — a peanut butter, meat or cheese sandwich with a side and drink — was the “perfect” meal, just like one they would have at home.

jbondeson@gazette.net