Rising food costs makes free school summer meals vital, parents and officials say

Credit: Journal News

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Credit: Journal News

Area summer meal programs were always important to needy school families and now even more so as food costs soar under an inflationary economy, said local school officials.

And school parents tell the Journal-News they appreciate the free meals for their kids — which in some local districts are delivered by food trucks — as they combat skyrocketing prices.

Hunger and food insecurity don’t take the summer off, they said, especially during tough economic times, supply chain shortages and the third summer under the shadow of the COVID-19.

And the food challenges extend far beyond local school campuses, said state foodbank officials this week.

“With the cost of everything from rent and utilities to childcare to food and fuel higher than ever, and with less federal help available, we are seeing more families with kids — including many that have not sought help throughout the pandemic until now — standing more often in our lines,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

In Ohio, food program officials have estimated one in five children experience food insecurity.

During the school year, students from low-income families depend heavily on free breakfasts and lunches — subsidized by federal funds — provided by public schools to families who met household income guidelines for eligibility.

About a decade ago, some area school systems expanded these free meals through the summer and some like Hamilton and Middletown took their meal assistance plans mobile with school food trucks delivering meals at various locations at lunch time each weekday.

Others like Lakota and Fairfield Schools, arranged to transport meals in trucks to multiple communities while still more districts use their school campuses as meal pick-up locations for the free or reduced-price food.

“This program is so important,” said Fairfield school parent Jennifer Boafo as she took a break from supervising her kids eating the noontime meals provided in her community.

“It’s free. And they get to eat together with their friends like they do at school,” Boafo said of the other school-age children eating their food.

She also appreciates the free lunch “because it saves money for breakfast and dinner.”

“The economy is so high (prices) and we are so grateful for (Fairfield Schools) providing this free meal for parents,” she said.

Mara Powell, food and nutrition field specialist for Fairfield Schools, coordinates the summer food program and joins staffers as they travel and serve meals at different locations within the school system.

Powell said parents “are very appreciative and they look forward to it.”

The meals are a vital nutritional bridge between school years, said Powell.

“The kids get fed at school then there’s a gap of a good three months and they still need to be fed and families with limited resources really struggle to feed their children.”

Middletown Schools Spokeswoman Elizabeth Beadle echoed that, saying the hardships facing low-income families are tougher this summer compared to previous years.

The district uses its own food truck – the Middie Meal Machine – in delivering nutritional meals each weekday around the city’s neighborhoods.

ExploreMiddie Meal Machine food truck hits the road soon to battle hunger in Middletown

According to school officials, 100% percent of Middletown’s students are eligible under federal guidelines for free or reduced cost meals during the school year though not all school families use that option.

“With the high food and gas costs, it’s even more important this summer that Middletown City School District figures out a way to get meals into the hands of our students,” said Beadle.

“When you’re a 100% free and reduced lunch/breakfast district, you worry about your students when they’re not in the buildings. The Middie Meal Machine Food Truck and other community entities have made the important investment to find ways to get food to our families.”

“Last summer we served 10,651 meals and we are hoping to serve more meals this summer,” she said.

Jean Martin has four children in Middletown Schools and says of the Middie Meal Machine food truck “it’s great” as her kids played after lunch at Sunset Park.

“I don’t have to think about what to make for lunch and it’s free. It’s an awesome resource for our city,” said Martin.

Fellow school parent Zach Magness also saw his children fed at the truck’s park stop and said “it’s awesome, you just have to drive down the street or walk over and kids like.”

“And its nice that it’s not just a piece of pizza. It’s fruit and veggies. And free is a hard price to beat,” Magness said.

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The Middletown Middie Meal Machine food truck is the key delivery system for the city schools' summertime student meal program. The food truck travels to various Middletown neighborhoods each weekday to provide nutritional meals to students whose families may be fighting rising inflation's impact on food and other costs. MICHAEL CLARK/STAFF

The Middletown Middie Meal Machine food truck is the key delivery system for the city schools' summertime student meal program. The food truck travels to various Middletown neighborhoods each weekday to provide nutritional meals to students whose families may be fighting rising inflation's impact on food and other costs. MICHAEL CLARK/STAFF

Combined ShapeCaption
The Middletown Middie Meal Machine food truck is the key delivery system for the city schools' summertime student meal program. The food truck travels to various Middletown neighborhoods each weekday to provide nutritional meals to students whose families may be fighting rising inflation's impact on food and other costs. MICHAEL CLARK/STAFF

In the Hamilton Schools system, Dining Services Director Cinde Gorbandt said the food distribution can be a lifeline for some families.

Hamilton has provided food from the truck each summer since 2018. The district says the goal is to make sure nutritious meals are offered to its students regardless of whether class is in session.

The Big Blue Food Truck, named after the district’s nickname, may be found around the city on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through the end of July.

Gorbandt said “the menu changes every day.”

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Hamilton City Schools' cooks change up what the Big Blue Food Truck offers free to students during the summer. MANDY GAMBRELL/STAFF

Hamilton City Schools' cooks change up what the Big Blue Food Truck offers free to students during the summer. MANDY GAMBRELL/STAFF

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Hamilton City Schools' cooks change up what the Big Blue Food Truck offers free to students during the summer. MANDY GAMBRELL/STAFF

The food truck sees anywhere from 100-150 students in the hours it is open no matter its location. Students eat free and adults are welcome to dine for $4 a meal.

“We try to be in places with splash pads,” Gorbandt said while working at the truck recently at Crawford Woods on Hensley Avenue. “And on Thursdays the Lane Library’s Book Mobile is with us. Who wouldn’t want to come, have a great meal, read a book and splash around in the water?” she said.

For information on the summer meal program in your local public school system, parents are urged to go to their school district websites.

Journal-News Editor Mandy Gambrell contributed to this story.

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Staff who work in the cafeterias in the Hamilton City Schools are seen working in the Big Blue Food Truck at Crawford Woods. The truck moves around the city offering free lunches to students during the summer. Adults may buy a meal for $4. MANDY GAMBRELL/STAFF

Staff who work in the cafeterias in the Hamilton City Schools are seen working in the Big Blue Food Truck at Crawford Woods. The truck moves around the city offering free lunches to students during the summer. Adults may buy a meal for $4. MANDY GAMBRELL/STAFF

Combined ShapeCaption
Staff who work in the cafeterias in the Hamilton City Schools are seen working in the Big Blue Food Truck at Crawford Woods. The truck moves around the city offering free lunches to students during the summer. Adults may buy a meal for $4. MANDY GAMBRELL/STAFF

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