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Thursday October 23rd 2014

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Feeding Escambia County Kids This Summer
By Jessica Forbes

The Dixon School of the Arts cafeteria is quiet at 8:30 in the morning on the second to last day of the school year. The breakfast service has finished, leaving the room void of the usual energy and noise found in a lunchroom.

That cafeteria, along with most others in the Escambia County School District, will remain quiet throughout the summer, leaving its kids looking for their meals elsewhere.

Over 60 percent of Escambia County public school students, roughly 24,000 children, rely on the school system for at least two free or reduced price meals a day during the school year.

Through federally funded programs, students whose families qualify are eligible for free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches five days a week. Additionally, large numbers of elementary school students depend during the school year on backpack programs—sponsored and organized largely by local churches—to provide food over the weekend.

According to school administrators and community outreach workers, many of the children would have very little, sometimes nothing, to eat if it weren’t for those programs.

“The challenge is, the public school system and county-wide summer camps are totally different now than they were 10 years ago,” said Reverend LuTimothy May, executive director of Dixon School of the Arts. “During those times, many children that were underprivileged went to summer school because they were fed, just like regular school. Summer was filled not just with education, but with basic needs.”

The near vaporization of public summer school offerings equals a dramatic disruption in the food system for those students. Only a small handful of summer school programs are offered, and none for the duration of the summer.

Which begs the question:  During the summer, where are the kids who normally rely on school meals getting food?

Running the Numbers

During the 2012-2013 school year, over 24,000 students in the Escambia County School District (ECSD) were part of the free or reduced price meal programs.

Administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) via the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program provide free or reduced price meals that meet USDA nutritional standards for children.

The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is the USDA program that provides reimbursements for meals through the summer.

Qualifying for the programs is based on a family’s income as it relates to the national poverty level. The cut off for qualifying varies with the size of a family. Last school year, a family of four whose income was $29,965 or less was eligible for free lunch; a family of four earning $42,643 or less was eligible for reduced price meals, which by law can cost a maximum of 40 cents each.

One full-time minimum wage job—$7.79 per hour in Florida as of January—brings an annual gross income of $14,956.80. A full-time job paying $10 an hour—a common rate for many jobs in Escambia County—results in a gross income of $19,200, well within the parameters for a single parent with three kids to qualify for the programs.

As of 2009, the Escambia County School District served lunches at schools where students were enrolled in summer classes, as well as sites throughout the community that operated summer camps for children. That year, the ECSD turned over administration of the SFSP at community sites to Appetite for Life and Bay Area Food Bank, both nonprofits accustomed to managing food services on a limited budget.

The two nonprofits combined anticipate serving slightly less than 2,000 meals each weekday through the summer this year, to a little over 1,000 individual children. The ECSD estimates that 500 third graders will attend a summer reading camp, one of the few summer school programs offered—none of which operate longer than 32 days, and the only one providing free and reduced price meals.

Meaning approximately 1,500 to 2,000 of the 24,000 eligible students will receive meals during a part of the summer provided through the USDA programs. The remaining 22,000 are left to make other arrangements.

A Harsh Reality

Dr. Shereé Cagle, principal of Global Learning Academy (GLA), has been on the front lines of programming to curb hunger in Escambia County schools for several years.

Her backpack program at Hallmark Elementary became the impetus for others in the district. Cagle continued the program at GLA, where a 100 percent of the elementary school’s 750 students are on free or reduced price meals.

“There is such a great need and such a limited amount of resources,” said Cagle. “Unless you are one of the third graders going to summer school, there isn’t anything out there except community programs. The churches step up a lot in the summertime and do summer programs and make sure they offer meals, but it is still very limited.”

Teachers at GLA receive training on how to identify signs of hunger and recommend children for the backpack programs based on what they observe. Cagle says they encourage students not to be worried about asking for food.

“All of our teachers tell our students, ‘Don’t ever be afraid to say, ‘I’m hungry,’” she said.

As an administrator tracking the data, Cagle noticed teachers and staff encountered more discipline issues on Fridays. After talking to some of the children, they discovered, in many cases, the anxiety about going home and not knowing where meals were be coming from, or whether or not they have a home at all, drove many of the problems. Last school year, 180 students from 145 of GLA’s families were homeless at some point.

“We believe that when we met those basic needs—food, shelter, clothing—then they could concentrate on school better,” Cagle said. “It really did help turn our school around.”

Other lessons learned at Hallmark illuminated the need for additional services at the school for families who may be struggling financially. GLA has a food pantry, stocked from Liberty Church, a Parent Resource Room with computers, refrigerator, microwave, and a washer and dryer for families to use in the event they have no electricity or are homeless.

“People really don’t know the challenge the vast majority of children—especially lower-income children—have when it comes to food,” said Rev. May. “And these kids may not tell you they’re hungry, but provide them a meal and you’ll see [they are].”

There are 160 students enrolled at Dixon, 99 percent of whom May estimates are on free or reduced price breakfast and lunch programs during the school year.

Carmen Powe is a guidance counselor at Brown-Barge Middle School.  She told the IN that over 40 percent of her 520 students are on free or reduced meals—“and that’s at a magnet school. I know the numbers are astronomical at the neighborhood schools.”

Powe has students that come to her throughout the week for additional food because there isn’t enough at home. Powe and other guidance staff keep breakfast bars and crackers to provide those students who come to them hungry.

“I don’t think that if they’re on free or reduced lunch that they don’t eat during the summer, but it’s a question of what they can afford to eat,” said Powe, who notes that fresh fruits or vegetables are often out of the question for those living on tight budgets, and starchy, fatty foods being less expensive are relied upon. “When you have to make that choice between eating and not eating, you’re going to choose the items you can get, the cheap food.”

DeDe Flounlacker, executive director of Manna Food Pantries, agreed. “There is a real issue with people living in poverty not having access to healthy food,” she said. “Many often rely on convenience stores, which is a huge problem because you can’t make a dollar stretch very far there.”

Flounlacker said demand goes up during the summer at all Manna’s locations, often from families with children who are searching for food. Manna, which has seen donations go down as demand has increased in recent years, provided food to over 44,000 people in 2012. Flounlacker firmly believes, “No one realizes how widespread hunger is in our community.”

Rita Icenogle, director of United Way 2-1-1, a call center for people looking for assistance, said in 2012 the program had over 400 calls specific to feeding children during the summer. “In fact, we’ve had calls from children. We had a call from one 8-year-old who called and said she and her brother were hungry. She’d found our card and wanted to find out where she could get food.”

According to Cagle, teachers at GLA feed several children at the end of the day in the classrooms with food from the school’s food pantry “because we know, they’ve told us there is nothing when they go home.” For those students, the end of the school year marks the beginning of an uncertain 12 weeks before the next school year begins on August 19.

Filling the Gap

The kitchen at Appetite for Life (A4L) is humming late in the afternoon during the first truly hot week of the year. Staff is bustling with the radio on while Operations Director Marcus Ditty proudly shows off state-of-the-art ventilation systems and ovens in the kitchen, remodeled recently after a fire that destroyed much of the nonprofit’s building. The new equipment—purchased with a grant received from IMPACT 100—makes the organization’s operation of turning out thousands of meals a month that much more efficient.

“A lot of kids are faced with not knowing where they’re getting their next meal from. Poverty in Escambia County is really, really bad right now,” Ditty explained back in his office, which adjoins A4L’s food pantry.

“For most kids, their nutrition for the day is that breakfast and lunch that they’re getting through the school system,” said Ditty. “That’s why these programs are so important. That’s why funding for the programs at the national and state levels are so important.”

Having taken on the SFSP in 2009, Ditty acknowledges the cumbersome nature of administering the summer program, but he clearly thrives on the opportunity to feed hungry kids and finding ways to expand the offerings.

“Each site can choose up to two meal services,” Ditty explained, as the USDA reimburses for two of any combination of breakfasts, lunches, or snacks. “We try to make sure everybody gets lunch because that’s the main staple. If a kid’s only going to eat one meal a day, then you’d better let them get the biggest, best meal.”

A4L and Bay Area Food Bank (BAFB) both provide food to the SFSP locations in Escambia County that have independently organized camps or activities for children, and have requested to receive meals during the summer.

Designated “Open Sites” are open to anyone 18 years of age or younger, providing food with no questions asked. Even if a camp is operating at that site, children not enrolled can obtain meals at those locations. “Closed” sites are those open only to children enrolled in the programs offered.

For summer 2013, A4L will provide meals for six sites and BAFB will provide to nine. Only two of those sites are closed. The number of weeks the programs operate varies from site to site.

Nonprofits are reimbursed for the summer meals, just as the school district is, through the NLSP during the school year, but they are left absorbing the cost of personnel, preparation, delivery and administration. “It was a challenge for us, but that’s one thing at A4L that we like is a challenge,” said Ditty. “We don’t back down from those very easily.”

Leah Weber, child nutrition coordinator at the Panhandle Branch of Bay Area Food Bank explained, “We are reimbursed partially for the food cost, but we have to keep up with the paperwork. The only connection we have with any school board throughout the summer is notification of what sites are operating in their area.”

As to the importance of the meals offered through the SFSP, Ditty said, “I’ve heard so many things, it’s hard to determine. In general, most of the kids who are getting food through our programs, that’s the food they’re getting. It could be for any number of reasons—it’s everything from mom has two jobs, to mom’s not there, to it’s a sick parent, to there’s no money for food regardless, and the kid is trying to bring leftovers home for mom, even.”

Stepping Up

At Johnson Beach on the first day of summer break, a group of children from the Milk and Honey Outreach Ministry’s afterschool camp are wading in the water, looking at specimens of sea life with members of the local Audubon Society.

“I found a crab!” one child exclaimed. Another holds what he initially believes to be a jellyfish, but along with friends learns that it is in fact a grouping of snail egg pods.

Other campers swim nearby, taking breaks to look at the various examples of aquatic flora and fauna held up around them.

“Reverend Gulley makes sure the children learn to swim,” one mother said, referring to Reverend William Gulley, outreach coordinator of the Outreach ministry, which has been operating for 20 years.

“We discovered some years ago that whenever kids are out during school breaks, there is still a need for two things:  Supervision and food. We are there to provide this for the kids at no cost. Our ministry, we raise the money to support the kids,” said Gulley.

Milk and Honey’s education-based programs first began to help elementary and middle school-age children improve their reading skills. Afterschool programs assist with homework, and the spring break and summer camps also emphasize reading comprehension and writing skills.

The organization’s spring break and summer camp expanded to include a range of activities including swimming, bowling and weekly trips to the public library. In 2012, Milk and Honey received an IMPACT 100 grant to purchase two minibuses to transport the children to the activities from the Fricker Community Center, where the camps are based.

The 10-week summer camp provides breakfast, lunch and a snack to take home each night. “Food goes away when they’re not in school, and we know that,” said Gulley.

Milk and Honey always has a wait list for the summer program, which can currently accept 35 campers. “With grants and foundation monies we could definitely expand,” Gulley said.

Churches are behind the vast majority of programs aimed at feeding children, through backpack and afterschool programs during the school year and Vacation Bible School and camps during the summer. Whenever they see a need, churches provide food and assistance to groups of 30 or 40 at a time, as their resources allow.

“One of the things that has really made it work for us are our partnerships,” said Gulley. Partnerships with other churches and community groups bolster what the programs can offer, as with Milk and Honey’s partnership with the Francis M. Weston Audubon Society, which itself obtained a grant for educational programs to expose kids to the beach and its ecosystems. They too provide food to campers, a fish fry in the case of the end-of-the-school-year event at Johnson Beach.

“It’s a big challenge, especially with all the services that have been stripped away,” said May of the work churches are doing for children and families during the summer.

Despite the challenges, May believes that the faith-based community is “one of the greatest assets for children and families living in poverty or just in tough financial times to provide food over the summer.”

Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, where May is the pastor, provides meals for children attending Wednesday night Bible Study.

“Some kids, this is all they get,” church member Oscar Savary said while setting up tables and seating for the approximate 40 children expected on Wednesday nights. Savary empathized with the tough economics facing families. “I know it’s hard—most parents are single, single mothers.”

Church members finance the Wednesday night meals out of their own pockets. Savary buys the drinks, and Robert Pressley, a former captain at the NAS Fire Department, pays for and prepares the food.

“We have so many challenges, but I love what I do. I feel like we’re blessed,” said May of the work the congregation does. “We’re able to be a part of making a difference in peoples’ lives.  Even if it’s just for that day, you change that life, where a stomach isn’t growling like it was.”

In addition to regular services, May notes that summer Vacation Bible Schools are greatly important to families looking for meals for children in the summer. “I’m telling you, you can go to any Vacation Bible School in the county, and they will be filled with kids, particularly kids that don’t attend their church,” said May. “Some families strategize their summer around Vacation Bible School, they have the whole summer planned out because they’re trying to get their child some food.”

Randy Hamil of Northridge Church’s Hope Outreach oversees a backpack program that provides during the school year 379 bags a week to three local elementary schools, including Global Learning Academy.

Year round, Hope Outreach also delivers meals every Tuesday to approximately 30 families in the vicinity of GLA. “It leads us to be on their doorstep more, and help out,” said Hamil, who works with the volunteers to deliver meals, talk to and pray with families in need, and notes, “We see a lot of people who are working very hard, working multiple jobs.”

Ditty too has noticed in the 10 years he has worked in hunger relief the changing need. “The face of poverty has changed so much,” he said. “You have this whole new class of people in poverty they call the ‘working poor.’ It’s not people who are homeless, or don’t have a job. It’s [situations where] mom and dad both work, but both are working an $8.50 an hour job because that’s all that’s available to them.”

“It’s a lot easier to get help with food than it is with your rent, or your heat, or your medications,” said Ditty. “There are a lot of people out there doing a lot of good for people, distributing food.”

How to better get word to the people who need food and expand the offerings is on the minds of many working with hunger relief in Escambia County.

Opening the Lines of Communication

Jaleena Davis, director of the ECSD Food Services Department, oversees the free and reduced meal programs for the district during the school year. When asked if the nonprofits aim to fulfill the needs of the 24,000-plus eligible students during the summer, Davis said, “I’m really not sure. Of course, we want to make sure as many students as possible receive meals during the summertime.”

Churches, nonprofits and community groups are all aware of the need. They acknowledge that with more financial support and better communication, they could expand their programs and reach more children.

A4L and Bay Area both perform marketing duties—putting up USDA-provided yard signs, distributing fliers and notifying school boards of their sites—on their own. Unfortunately, as both organizations are nonprofits, and, like all others trying to help with the problem on a tight budget, their efforts can only go so far.

“The state provides us with fliers and posters,” said Davis of the ECSD’s marketing efforts about the summer sites. “We send some out and we also send some to Appetite for Life, because we ended up with an abundance of them.”

Word is evidently reaching few, as many administrators and community members said they are unfamiliar with the programs.

“We have a day and a half left in school, and I have not heard anything about Appetite for Life feeding anybody over the summer,” said Powe of the lack of information received at Brown-Barge Middle School. “Communication may be the reason there is that gap.”

“I’m not sure that there’s enough advertisement about that,” Cagle said. “I wish they would do more because they are great programs and offer great things throughout the summer. We need to see what we can do to get the word out there, how we can do it better. The school is the perfect place because we have this audience here.”

Aware of the challenges facing all parties, Ditty emphasized, “By no means is that gap the school board’s fault. It’s a matter of finding the pockets of need and partner organizations that are willing to operate sites.”

Ditty said there is little discussion between the ECSD and his organization about the need in the district, but “I see their numbers. It’s one of those things where you hate that it goes up, and it goes up every year.”

Both Appetite 4 Life and Bay Area Food Bank believe they could expand operations if the number of community partners were to grow. “We haven’t exceeded [capacity] yet, we’re looking to expand every year and we hope to continue to grow the program,” said BAFB’s Weber.

Ditty estimates A4L could produce up to 2,500 meals per day without changing or adding much to their current operations. “I’d love to,” he said.

“Give me a little while and I can, I guarantee you!” Ditty responded when asked if one group could produce 24,000 meals a day.

At present, it seems the best and only centralized source of information for families in need is United Way’s 2-1-1 Hotline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The 2-1-1 operators provide information about a variety of resources, but most often provide assistance connecting callers with food, shelter and clothing.

Cagle hopes the many players in the schools and community can one day sit down and discuss how to better address the issue of hunger in the county.

“It’s always been my dream to get all of the stakeholders around the table and decide how we can get the message out and help into the hands of people who need it,” said Cagle. “The hunger goes along with the homelessness, which goes along with not being enough jobs in Pensacola. As a community we need to look at the bigger picture and see how we can pool our resources together.”

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Summer Food Program Sites
The following sites serve as Escambia County locations for the Summer Food Service Program. All sites are considered “open sites” unless otherwise noted.

Appetite 4 Life Sites

Latino Unido Encristo
5811 St. Elmo Street
Pensacola, FL 32503
850-293-6806

New Life Church
8600 W. Hwy. 98
Pensacola, FL 32506
850-208-3788

First Baptist Church of Warrington
18 S. Merritt St.
Pensacola, FL 32507
850-456-8420

Gonzalez Court
2800 N. 9th Ave.
Pensacola, FL 32503
850-438-8561

Moreno Court
900 S. Corry Field Rd.
Pensacola, FL 32507
850-455-1366
Closed Site: YMCA Northeast Pensacola
3215 Langley Ave.
Pensacola, FL 32504
850-478-1222

Bay Area Food Bank Sites

Boys and Girls Club
2751 North H St.
Pensacola, FL 32501
850-438-0996

Positive Image
700 W. Truman Ave.
Pensacola, FL 32505
850-530-4692

EPPS Christian Center
2300 N. Pace Blvd.
Pensacola, FL 32505
850-572-5761

Cobb Resource Center
601 E. Mallory St.
Pensacola, FL 32521
850-436-5192

Fricker Resource Center
900 North F St.
Pensacola, FL 32521
850-436-5195

Pathways for Change
1401 W. Lloyd St.
Pensacola, FL 32501
850-637-1429

New World Believers
260 W. Jordan St.
Pensacola, FL 32505
850-607-3252

Truth for Youth
432 W. Belmont St.
Pensacola, FL 32501
850-393-0332

Closed Site: Capstone Academy
4901 W. Fairfield Dr.
Pensacola, FL 32506
850-458-7735

For additional information including operating hours, visit summerfoodflorida.org

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