With summer break less than two weeks away, the Howard County school system is gearing up its free weekday lunch program and adding a mobile distribution location in Columbia.
“Hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation,” said Brian Ralph, director of food and nutrition services. “Our goal is to go even beyond the summer … we are looking to [provide free meals] 365 days a year and not just the 180 [school] days.”
Ralph said the goal is to give away 60,000 meals over the eight-week program, 10,000 more than were given out last year.
A new mobile site will be at the East Columbia library. The meals are prepared at the four school sites and taken to the library.
This year’s school sites are Laurel Woods Elementary, Talbott Springs Elementary, Harper’s Choice Middle and Oakland Mills Middle schools.
The program starts June 25 and closes Aug.17. The elementary school sites are open from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and the middle schools and library are open noon to 1:30 p.m.
“The beauty of this program [is that] it’s open to all students,” Ralph said. No child is turned away as they are under the age of 18. The sites do not ask the children for their names, proof of attending a county public school or home addresses.
During the school year, 22 percent of students in the 56,000 student system receive free- or reduced-price meals through a free- and reduced-price meals program known as FARM.
“We believe that the number of families who qualify are five to 10 percent higher than that [ the 22 percent],” said Brian Bassett, a schools spokesman. “Some of them don’t know that they qualify, some of them don’t know it exists, some don’t know how to sign up and others choose not to based on stigmas.”
For the current school year, about 10,200 students receive free meals and 2,300 pay a reduced rate for meals in the county, according to data from the State Department of Education.
Statewide, 43 percent of all students enrolled in the public school system receive free or reduced-price meals, according to the data.
To qualify to be a summer lunch distribution site, the surrounding area has to have at least 50 percent of students enrolled in the FARMs program, Ralph said.
Summer meals are similar to the ones served during the school year. The hot lunches, complete with fresh fruit, vegetables and milk are different every day.
The summer meal program is an extension of the National School Lunch Program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture covers the entire cost of every meal served, according to Bassett. There are no costs to the school system.
The school system, in partnership with the county government, also has a summer weekend meal program, the Weekend Warrior Backpack Program, that launched last year.
“If we are feeding them in schools Monday through Friday, what happens Saturday and Sunday?” Bassett said.
The program, coordinated by the Roving Radish meals program, provides a free backpack of lunches and snacks for children to take home on the weekends.
School reopens Sept. 4, leaving students without a free lunch for two weeks. The program ends to allow for the school kitchens to be cleaned before school is back in session.
Last year, the summer lunch program was extended two weeks at Stevens Forest Elementary School because of demand.
“We are quite flexible … we will continue to monitor the locations and if possible if we can have a site or two extended, we might do that,” Ralph said.