Guest colum/End of school doesn’t mean meals stop

For too many Steubenville children, summer break doesn’t just mean a break from homework; it also means a break from a dependable source of nutritious food. That’s because for them, hunger isn’t something that happens in another country. Many of these children come from families that are food insecure – meaning they don’t always know when they’ll get their next meal. These children, like many at Harding Middle School and West Pugliese Elementary, know how difficult it is to focus on learning while trying to ignore the pangs of an empty stomach.

Thankfully, qualifying children can receive nutrition assistance through free or reduced-price lunches during the academic year. But when the East Elementary cafeteria closes for the summer, for instance, its students are still in dire need of a nutritious meal or snack.

That’s why the Summer Food Service Program – which provides breakfast, lunch, or a snack for children under 18 – is so important. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Department of Education work together to ensure that children have access to the food they need to keep growing and learning during the summer months.

However, too many Steubenville families still don’t know about this critical program.

In 2011, only 66,000 Ohio children per day utilized the Summer Food Service Program – even though 800,000 need and receive nutrition assistance during the school year. This is also a problem in West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania.

Summer break shouldn’t mean a break from good nutrition. That’s why I’m working to raise awareness and increase access to the program for children in low-income families – regardless of where they live.

There are eight sites in Steubenville that can help. Volunteers and organizers are ensuring our children have the healthy food they need to succeed at approved schools like East Elementary and Steubenville High School; churches like Finley United Methodist Church; and recreation centers like Belleview Park Swimming Pool, Harding Field, Martin Luther King Recreation Center, Jim Wood Park, and Murphy’s Field.

While this is a good start, we can do even more to help. That’s why, a few years ago, I co-hosted a first-of-its-kind hunger summit at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank with leading anti-hunger advocates from across Ohio. Rather than lament a growing problem, we discussed how Ohio stakeholders can work together to increase the number of community leaders, sponsors, volunteers, and sites that can provide children with nutritious meals during both the school year and summer months.

The single biggest thing we can do is to make sure more people know about this program.

Outreach and public awareness are critical components to ensure that the end of the school year doesn’t mean an end to healthy meals for Steubenville children.

(Brown, D-Ohio, serves in the United States Senate.)