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Program in Lansdowne ensures kids eat healthy meals during summer

For a group of children at the Lansdowne Police Athletic League (PAL) Center, lunch last week meant turkey, stuffing, roasted potatoes, a slice of orange and milk, all provided free by the Maryland Food Bank.

The Thursday afternoon meal is part of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a federal program established to ensure that children who qualify for the Free and Reduced Price Meals program during the school year continue to get nutritious meals when school is not in session, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) website.

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The Maryland Food Bank is one of the organizations in the state that provides meals through the program, said John Shaia, vice president of programs and network relations for the Food Bank, which is based in Halethorpe.

Summer meals are provided to 19 sites in Baltimore County and 80 throughout the state. The meals must meet a set of nutritional guidelines set by the USDA, Shaia said.

Food Bank chefs try to strike a balance between serving healthy meals and those that appeal to children, which can be a challenge when so many children consider pizza and soda a normal lunch, explained Meg Hamill, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank.

Executive Chef Aida Blanco, six staff members and a fluctuating number of interns who participate in the Food Bank's culinary program cook the meals each morning. They are then packaged and delivered from the food bank's commercial kitchen in Halethorpe, Hamill said.

Each meal is homemade and ingredients change on a seasonal basis, Hamill said.

A typical meal includes a main course, a vegetable, a piece of a fruit and an 8 oz. milk. The day before, for example, the kids were served pasta with meat sauce, peas, pineapple and milk.

Meals are offered free to all of the children at the center, although some opt to bring their own lunch.

The Police Athletic League center, located in a portable trailer behind Lansdowne Elementary School, is one of nine in the county that receives free meals donated by the Food Bank through the program.

The centers are all located within close proximity to Title 1 schools, schools that receive extra federal financial assistance because 64.09 percent of more of their students qualify for the Free and Reduced Price Meal program.

A family of four that earns $44,123 or less per year qualifies for meals at a reduced price through program, and a household of the same size with an income of $31,005 qualifies for free meals, according to the new guidelines released July 1 by the Maryland Department of Education.

At Lansdowne Elementary School, 93.4 percent of the population qualified for a free or reduced meal in the 2012-2013 school year.

Free meals are served at the locations where they attract a greater number of students who participate in the Free and Reduced Price Meals program, said Hamill.

"Those are established safe places for kids to go, so it's really easy to integrate a healthy meal," Hamill said.

The PAL program is offered free to ages 8 to 17, said Lisa Ritchey, coordinator of the site, which is under the jurisdiction of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.

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Ritchey said the center attracts children beyond the boundaries of Lansdowne. For working parents, the center offers children a "free alternative to day camp," she said.

"It's really a big help for parents," Ritchey said.

Ny'sha Howard, 12, who lives in Catonsville, is dropped off by her mother during the week at the center.

She said spending time at the center is a way to learn new things.

"They teach us how to express ourselves," Ny'sha said.

"It definitely provides a place where they can go to stay off the streets and out of trouble and better themselves through education," Ritchey said, sitting in her office at the center.

Ritchey, a former teacher at St. Joseph's School in Cockeysville and Hampstead Elementary School in Carroll County, oversees three part-time staff members, who assist with supervising the children. They play sports like soccer and basketball, activities like arts and crafts and have a room with two pool tables and a fooseball table. Occasionally, volunteers and police officers come to visit the children, Ritchey said.

There are currently 86 kids registered in the program, with 30 to 35 in and out of the center on any given day, Ritchey said.

Last week, the kids played soccer under the supervision of center leader Adam Zuckerman and activity specialist Zach Richards.

Jawuan Bailey, 12, of Arbutus, was one of 16 children who kicked a ball around on a fenced-in basketball court near the center before lunch.

"I have fun here. And I meet new people here and friends," Jawuan said, surrounded by a group of boys and girls on the court.

If he wasn't at the center, playing with friends, Jawuan said he'd probably be at home playing video games.

The site is open from 3 to 8 p.m. during the school year and children have to do homework from 3 to 4 p.m.

During the summer months, it's open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Breakfast isn't served because very few children come in the morning, Ritchey said.

During the school year, rather than providing lunch, dinner is offered from the Food Bank.

Ritchey said the center and the meals provided make a difference.

"We've had a lot of kids go on to college," she said.

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