City, county expand summer free meal programs

When school lets out for the summer, many children lose access to free and reduced-price meals. In the past two weeks, Baltimore County and City both ramped up their efforts to feed these children, who account for eighty-four percent of students in Baltimore City and 47.4 percent in the county.

Baltimore City and County are expanding summer programs that feed low-income children, many of whom rely on free and reduced-price meals served at their schools.

The county is expanding its program to serve free lunches at four public libraries for the first time. The city plans to increase from 7,000 to 40,000 the number of free meals it delivers to neighborhoods in its mobile program and to expand the number of locations served.

In the city, where 84 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches in school, officials expect to serve a total of 1.5 million meals this summer. In the county, where 47 percent of school-age children qualify for the lunches, 4,400 children got meals last summer; officials didn't have an estimate for this year.

The programs are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides free and reduced-price lunches for millions of students nationwide. Children 18 and younger qualify.

City officials, through their work with the mobile program in communities last year, identified eight more areas where children are in need, said Jonathon Rondeau, president and CEO of Family League, a Mobile Meals sponsor. Mobile Meals, part of a program to end childhood hunger in the city, fills in the gaps left by the more than 400 fixed sites to provide children with food.

"We want to make it easy for children in need to eat as close to where they live as possible," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday in announcing the mobile expansion to 11 from three areas.

Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat who attended the announcement, said it's "relatively easy" to identify children in need during the school year but not in the summertime. "We have to make sure we find the kids and make these meals available to them," he said.

The county often partners with other organizations, including the YMCA and local churches, to feed its students, said Karen Levenstein, director of the county schools' Office of Food and Nutrition.

The addition of the library sites made sense because they "have always been there, and our kids have always been going," Levenstein said.

Branches in Arbutus, Lansdowne, Randallstown and White Marsh will serve the free lunches. They were chosen because they are near schools with high proportions of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, Levenstein said.

At the Arbutus branch Tuesday, about two dozen children ate apple slices and ham-and-cheese sandwiches. The program has served an increasing number of children since it began last week, said Robert Maranto, the Arbutus branch manager.

Last Monday, the library served six children; this Tuesday, 27 children had been served within 15 minutes.

But Karen Smith of Catonsville, the mother of 3 1/2-year-old Hogan and 2-year-old Cooper, said she worried that too few parents know about the program. "There should have been something that went home to the parents" from the school system, she said.

Arbutus resident Laura Blood, who was there with her 5-year-old daughter, Lana, said she only heard about the program when it was announced in the library that day.

Levenstein said that attendance has been "slow" and that because the arrangement had been made so late in the school year, there hadn't been time to widely publicize the lunches.

At the Mobile Meals kickoff, 35 children were served breakfast.

Delores Warbough, 59, a Baltimore City resident and grandmother to five young children who eat the meals, can watch as they run down the hill from their house and get food.

"I love the program," Warbough said. "I'm glad somebody thought about the babies. ... It's so important because you got to realize you have rough times, even a rich person has rough times."

Family League volunteers and employees make sure a local caterer provides enough nutritional meals for the children in the city and works with community organizations to offer books, toys and other entertainment for children to draw them out of their homes to come eat.

Smith, a teacher at Church Lane Elementary Technology in Randallstown, said the library lunches in the county will help her family. In the summer, "money is tight," she said.

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