How schools are feeding students during summer break in Butler, Warren counties

Many of the student meal delivery programs area districts scrambled to set up when schools were ordered closed in March due to the coronavirus are continuing to feed kids through the summer.

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School systems in Butler and southern Warren counties, some of which already had summer school meal programs set up for children from lower income families, are working to distribute meals to the children of needy families during schools’ summer break.

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“We know that there are many children in our community who rely on our schools for breakfast and lunch during the year,” said Betsy Fuller, spokeswoman for the 16,800-student Lakota Schools in Butler County.

Lakota was the first in the region to employ converted school buses to deliver meals during the summer break to school children whose families low incomes made them eligible for free and reduced school breakfast and lunch.

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Other districts – Hamilton and Middletown – in recent years also started mobile food truck deliveries of student meals but coronavirus social distancing requirements have schools instead working with local networks of food pantries and other organizations to distribute the pre-packaged meals.

“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, meals are available at nine locations throughout the community for children ages 1-18. We want to ensure that they continue to have access to meals during the summer months when school is not in session,” said Fuller, whose district covers West Chester and Liberty Townships and is the largest suburban school system in Southwest Ohio.

Warren County’s largest district, Mason Schools, is also working with local food pantries as is the adjacent Kings Schools.

Officials for both districts, which mobilized quickly with meal distributions in March when state orders closed all Ohio K-12 schools, said the hunger of needy students doesn’t take a break during the summer.

“While our buildings were closed to help flatten the (coronavirus) curve, our Child Nutrition staff served 29,000 meals,” said Tracey Carson, spokeswoman for Mason Schools.

“As we saw more families utilizing our weekly meal programs, we recognized that families may also need support during the summer. Fortunately, two terrific partners - Joshua’s Place and the Comet Cupboard - stepped up to help ensure that (Mason) families facing economic uncertainty could still receive food and personal care items over the summer,” said Carson.

“In addition, children receiving free or reduced lunches while in school are eligible for the national Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer Program which provides additional monetary assistance to those households,” she said.

For the last half decade Kings Schools has also coordinated its summer meal program through Joshua’s Place but now has opened a second meal distribution center at its Columbia Intermediate School.

“Since mid-March, our Kings Food Service Department has served nearly 60,000 free meals to our community,” said Kings Spokeswoman Dawn Gould. “On a weekly basis, any child in our community under the age of 18 is eligible to receive five lunches and five breakfasts.”

Cinde Gorbandt, director of dining for the 10,000-student Hamilton Schools, said not being able to use the district’s mobile food truck makes feeding kids tougher.

“During the summer we have utilized the food truck at various places throughout the community but we can’t social distance while cooking in the food truck, so until the Governor lifts the social distancing order we will be unable to do that this year,” said Gorbandt.

“We are still operating under the emergency school feeding program through the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) as part of our Seamless Summer Program,” she said.

For qualified area school families interested in free meals for their school-age children, they can check their local public school district websites for information or go the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service website, which includes a free meal locator search service to connect to a local school or food pantry provider.

For those without internet access, they can call the USDA National Hunger Hotline for food assistance. The hotline, operated by Hunger Free America, can be reached Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST at 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273) (for Spanish).

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