For most kids, summer is about freedom from classrooms and books, but for many children in Florida it also means fewer regular meals.
About 21 percent of Florida children are considered “food insecure,” meaning they do not have regular access to healthy food, according to the federal government. To combat that during the school year, these children receive free breakfast and lunch at school. In the summer, feeding programs provide nourishment.
In Florida, meals are distributed through the Summer BreakSpot program under the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“A lot of kids were going without regular meals in the summer and coming back to school in the fall not ready to learn,” said Rachel Mohler, state Summer Food Service program director.
Participation in the program has grown by 52 percent since 2012 after Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam advocated moving the program from the Department of Education to his department, Mohler said.
The state works with about 150 sponsors, including 15 churches, to arrange for about 4,600 distribution sites across the state that are typically schools, nonprofits, community centers and churches.
This summer more than 700 churches will be distribution sites.
Churches like First United Methodist in Fort Lauderdale, St. Paul UMC in Largo and Faith UMC in Orlando offer the meals as part of their summer camp programs. Other United Methodist churches, like Riverside Park and Arlington, both in Jacksonville, allow the YMCA to use their facilities to provide the meals.
Sponsors are encouraged to use Florida produce and products in preparing the meals and snacks that are delivered daily to the sites.
A few sites only provide the meals to children enrolled in their summer program, but sites in low-income neighborhoods are open to any child.
Mohler said it is difficult to quantify how many children are served. Some sites provide the meals for only a week, others all summer. Instead of counting children, they count meals. Last year, 15 million meals were served in 10 weeks. The number is expected to increase this summer.
Faith United Methodist Church in Orlando has partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank to provide breakfast and lunch to the children in its week-long camps that run from June 4 to Aug. 10.
Second Harvest prepares a shelf-stable breakfast and a hot meal for lunch that is delivered from a food truck.
“The kids get a kick out of going to the truck and getting their meal,” Ministry Coordinator Angel Coleman said.
She added that because the church is in a low-income neighborhood, it also is providing the meals for children in the community who aren’t enrolled in the camp.
Last year, in addition to the 53 campers, another 20 children from the community came for the meals.
“They would come every day for the whole summer,” Coleman said. “We have tried to reach out more this year. We’re the only one in the area that is doing this.”
The church charges $55 a week for the camp, which is about half what other camps cost, she said.
“People in this area just can’t afford to spend a lot,” she said. “Without the camp, they are left home alone or with grandparents. This lets the kids have a fun time, and the parents don’t have to worry about it.”
In addition to the meals, the church offers as enrichment activities, tutoring, field trips and a vacation bible school, using materials donated by another Methodist congregation, LifeSong Church.
One of the favorite activities is working in the church’s community garden.
“We grow it so people can have fresh vegetables, and the kids help out,” Coleman said. “We have a food pantry on Thursdays, and the kids are able to see where the fresh vegetables go.”
St. Paul UMC in Largo also has a week-long camp, which runs all summer, serving about 60 children, said Kaitie Zimmerman, director of children’s ministry. Only children enrolled in the camp receive the meals.
Food distribution is coordinated by the Pinellas County School District. A refrigerated truck delivers food each day. The church serves two cold meals plus snacks.
“It’s a real blessing for families who don’t have the ability to pack a lunch,” Zimmerman said.
Once a week, the children go swimming at a nearby recreation center and there are weekly field trips. On field trip days, lunch arrives packed in coolers.
First UMC in Fort Lauderdale started with the Summer Breakspot program last year, serving 40 children in its summer camp.
This year they will serve about 200 children in its preschool, week-long Vacation Bible School and summer camp program.
About 25 percent of the children are church members. Some of the children are in foster care, and others are in a government funded school readiness program.
“This is one of our best outreaches,” Children’s Ministry Director Krystie Castillo said.
Mohler said the program will be adding distribution sites throughout the summer. For more information about participating, go to summerbreakspot.org or call 1-800-504-6609.
—Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.