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Progress and Problems Nourishing Ohio's Children

Low-income parents and children face a challenge during June, July and August. The meals that the United States Department of Agriculture provides to public school are harder to come by in the summer. Organizations like Children's Hunger Alliance have worked so that this year more of Ohio's children are getting the same nutrition they need.

Plastic containers filled with sandwiches, apples, and chips snap from their places in large cardboard boxes at the hands of local high school student volunteers. Standing at a gymnasium door at Salesian's Boys & Girls Club in downtown Columbus, the volunteers pass out the containers to lines of giggling children. The children are lively from a morning of activities. Supervisor Judi Waldeis says they file in each day around noon and take their seats at long cafeteria tables-at least at first.

"We have our little ones, our Cadets, come in first, and they eat. And it's somewhat-controlled chaos. Then they go play. And then we have the older kids, and it's uncontrolled chaos," Waldeis said.

Within the cafeteria chaos, shouts and laughter from more than 150 elementary school students. They are beneficiaries of the USDA's Summer Food Service Program. Hundreds of thousands of Ohio children are eligible for it, but a mere 10 percent actually access the summer meals. While Ohio schools provide a breakfast and lunch program from September to June, meals for Ohio's kids are less reliable during the 3 months of summer. Waldeis explains the need she sees within her own community.

"They're here everyday, the same children eating breakfast. The parents, they're working but they're maybe not exactly well-off. They go to school, they get their lunches, and I know parents are wondering what's gon' happen during the summer. I brought up my kids young when I was a single parent and it's like, 'what am I gon' do for the summer now?' It is scary when they're getting fed at school and you're worried about the summer," Waldeis said.

Spokesman for Children's Hunger Alliance, Charlie Koslesky, says the small percentage of children served is not for lack of federal funds. Instead, he cites problems ranging from a shortage of distribution sites, to families' transportation struggles, to a lack of awareness about the program.

"Our summer program is our hardest one to implement. There are a couple reasons why it's hard one to implement: transportation isn't in place, and many times parents are not aware that the program is out there. The site has to have something more than just food. There needs to be activities; it needs to be located in a safe environment. We know there are other sites that could open so that we could take advantage of the USDA dollars that are in Washington to pay for this," Koslesky said.

The crackling as bags of chips open and hands reach into them is a common enough sound, but to the Children's Hunger Alliance, it is also a symbol of progress. There are nearly 500,000 children in Ohio hungry or at risk of hunger. And with the work of several community organizations, more children receive meals this summer than last summer.

"We've made great strides the last two years. Last year there were over 100,000 additional meals served. Our goal is to work to bring people together to try to get additional sites and sponsors. And if proper nutrition is given to those children during the summer, they will return to school eager to learn," Koslesky said.

A report by the Children's Hunger Alliance says proper nutrition also decreases a child's likelihood of becoming sick and acting out in school. Waldeis says each year more children come to the 6th St center and many of them would go hungry without the Summer Food Program.