Howard County schools will extend its summer lunch program at Stevens Forest Elementary School in Columbia by two weeks, due to high attendance and demand for the services, county officials said Friday.
The program was originally slated to end Friday. The three other locations for the program — Harper's Choice Middle School, Murray Hill Middle School and Thomas Viaduct Middle School — are closed for the summer.
Director of Food and Nutrition Services Brian Ralph had been considering extending the program for some time, and made the announcement last week after finalizing that Stevens Forest had enough administrators and staff to support the program over the next two weeks, according to Howard County schools spokesman Brian Bassett.
Bassett said that the county chose to extend service at Stevens Forest as it was the program's most popular location, and has been serving the community well this year. Locations for the program are based in part on the percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year. Almost 70 percent of students at Stevens Forest receive free or reduced-price lunches, according to data from the county school system.
This was only the program's second year to offer meals at four location sites, and it is expected to surpass the more than 50,000 meals served last year, Bassett said.
The announcement is likely to be met with praise from some in the community who had raised concerns about the month-long gap in service if the program ended Aug. 4; students do not go back to school until Sept. 5.
Bernadette Allen has been bringing her grandchildren and others in the neighborhood to Stevens Forest for lunch almost every day this summer, and had wanted to see the program extended, saying that she and others in the community would even be willing to volunteer to staff it if needed in order to keep the service open.
Allen said that she's seen high turnout at the program, and was worried about how those kids would be fed after the end of the program and before school starts. All Maryland schools will start after Labor Day for the first time this year after a mandate set by Gov. Larry Hogan last August.
The extension of the weekday program is the latest addition to the county's food security initiatives. In June, Howard County schools partnered with County Executive Allan Kittleman's office to launch the Weekend Warrior Snack Pack Program, to distribute backpacks of food to students every Friday in an effort to bridge the nutrition gap kids may face over the weekend. One of the program's two locations is at Stevens Forest; that program runs through Sept. 1.
Weekend Warrior is offered through a partnership between the county schools, the Roving Radish meals program and the Howard County Local Children's Board. Kori Jones, who helped organize the program from the Local Children's Board, said that the county had hoped to have Weekend Warrior help fill the gap in weekday service during August, but that a plan could not be created in time this year. Jones said, such an extension of the program was something under consideration for next year.
Jones said officials had seen an increase in the number of Weekend Warrior participants throughout the summer. At the program's launch, 30 backpacks of food were brought to each location; that number has expanded to nearly 75 backpacks.
Howard's extension of its summer weekday program at one location, which ends two weeks before school begins on Sept. 5, still lags behind county school lunch programs in Baltimore and Montgomery counties. Baltimore County offers lunches at numerous public school and public library locations throughout the summer, and will distribute lunches at 10 library locations through Aug. 25. Montgomery County operates nine lunch locations during the summer, and will keep one location open through Sept. 1.
Bassett said that Howard County schools must end the program before the academic year starts in order to give custodial and maintenance staff time to restock and clean equipment in school cafeterias and kitchens. He also said that the county is exploring ways to further expand the summer lunch program next year, which could include mobile meal services or offering lunches at locations other than schools during the final weeks of the summer.