The Howard County school system provided more than 66,000 free lunches through its summer weekday meals program, serving 16,000 more meals than last year.
The school system is “making a point that hunger doesn’t take a break during the summer,” said Brian Ralph, director of food and nutrition services for the school system.
After running for eight weeks, the federally funded program ended on Aug. 17. County schools reopen Sept. 4.
The school system served a total of 66,276 meals this summer, representing a 30 percent increase from last year, according to the school system’s food and nutrition services office.
Before the program kicked off, Ralph said the goal was to distribute 60,000 meals. During the 2017 summer program, 50,982 meals were provided.
This year the school system added a mobile distribution location at the East Columbia library. Laurel Woods Elementary, Talbott Springs Elementary, Harper’s Choice Middle and Oakland Mills Middle schools also offered meals.
“We believe that the steady increase we have experienced since 2014 [when the program began] has been a result of multiple factors including greater awareness efforts and the additional site at the East Columbia Library,” Brian Bassett, county schools spokesman, said in an email.
Ralph is already thinking ahead to next summer, with ideas to add more library locations or bring the mobile sites to swimming pools and parks. He also wants to expand the program to winter and spring breaks.
“The need is there for all 12 months, not just the summer,” Ralph said.
To be an eligible distribution site, the surrounding area has to have at least 50 percent of students enrolled in the school system’s free and reduced meals program known as FARM, according to Ralph.
Ralph said the additional library site helped the school system reach more children and reduce the stigma associated with receiving free meals.
“The library was a powerful location this year … we figured we needed to do something different this year [and] take the food to the community instead of the community coming to get the food [at one of the school locations],” Ralph said.
The East Columbia library served the most meals of all the sites, Ralph said.
Suki Lee, the library’s branch manager, has been overjoyed with the mobile site.
“I’ve been advocating for this,” Lee said. “We are a community library, we have a large influx of kids who spend their whole day here.”
The library served an average of 100 meals per day, Lee said. On Aug. 10, the library served 145 meals.
“We want this to continue and continue and continue,” Lee said. “Making sure the kids aren’t going hungry, that’s the key.”
Ralph said the school system “is definitely making an impact towards alleviating food insecurity in the county.”
In 2014, the county’s summer meals program reached 3,684 students. Ralph came on board in 2015 and since has led the program.
Since 2015, the school system has conducted a “vigorous outreach program,” to get the word out about the summer meals program, including having principals send letters home to families at the end of the year, Ralph said.
The school system has also trained its staff in the general rules and standards of the FARM program and helping them become more aware of food insecurities, Ralph said.
About 23 percent of the students in county schools get free or reduced-price meals, according to Ralph.
The meals are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program is an extension of the National Lunch Program.
No child under the age of 18 was turned away. Children were not asked for for their names, home addresses or proof of attending a county public school.
The lunches, different each day, were hot meals, with fruit, vegetables and milk.
At the East Columbia library site on a recent Thursday, children were served either chicken nuggets or a barbecue pork “ribaque,” and frozen strawberries, a variety of chopped vegetables including cherry tomatoes and carrots, and milk. The site also served cheese pizza each day as an alternative.
Dahlia Minor, a food service manager for the school system, cooked and prepared the meals for the mobile site at Oakland Mills Middle School each morning before bringing them to the library and serving them to children.
Minor, who works at Folly Quarter Middle School during the school year, previously has served summer meals at Waterloo Elementary School and Harper’s Choice Middle School.
Mark Dickson, a food transporter for the school system, has been serving meals at the East Columbia library this summer. He said many families come in with their children to receive the lunches.
“It’s been outstanding,” Dickson said. “People have been really appreciative of the program and we have developed great repertoires with the families.”
This story has been updated.