School is out, and summer is in full swing, but for many Florida children, the break is anything but carefree and easy. These boys and girls—more than 1 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—are at risk of going hungry.
During the school year, they rely on the National School Lunch Program for at least one nutritious meal each day. “When school is over, the safety net for feeding hungry children is lost,” said Trudy Novicki, CEO and president of Florida Impact, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger and poverty. “There’s just this big void when summer arrives as if nobody’s hungry during the summertime—and the reality is these children are not eating!”
|Children eat healthy at Meals on Wheels South Florida and Children's Services Council of Broward County. In 2016, more than 220,000 children were served through Florida's Summer BreakSpot program. Nearly 1.3 million qualify for the national lunch program in the state.|
United Methodist churches and schools across the Florida Conference have stepped up to fight this summertime hunger by serving as Summer BreakSpot sites. The federal program, which is administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, provides free, nutritious meals to children 18 and under at a variety of facilities throughout the state.
Many of these sites—such as First United Methodist Church of Lakeland, Tamiami United Methodist Elementary School in Miami and Simpson Memorial UMC in Jacksonville—incorporate Summer BreakSpot into their existing day camps. Under the program, approved vendors provide daily meals, allowing the nonprofits to serve more children without incurring food costs.
“It’s fabulous,” said Camilo Torres Villamil, a school administrator at Tamiami School. “It’s grains, fiber, protein, no trans-fats. It’s by the book!” In recent years, he has seen the healthy meals help underweight children bulk up and help heavier children drop a few pounds.
At Simpson Memorial UMC, the meals are a critical piece of its eight-week summer day camp for children ages 4 to 15. “It’s hard work, but that feeling that you’ve helped even one child makes it worth it,” said Mary Barrington, who coordinates the program. The camp pulls from multiple low-income neighborhoods such as Durkeeville, and parents often pull Barrington aside to ask about the nearest food pantries. “Our neighborhood is kind of known as a food desert,” she said. “It’s not a total lack of grocery stores, but there are not a lot…I like to think we are making a difference.”
|Cooking lessons are provided to young chefs at the Sisters for Abundant Living Summer BreakSpot mobile unit in Miami-Dade County. Many children in Florida are left without proper meals during the months when school adjourns for the summer.|
A Wesleyan approach
At Carlson Memorial UMC in LaBelle, which serves as a Summer BreakSpot during its annual vacation bible school, Pastor David Mullins has seen the effects of hunger firsthand. He can spot the hungriest kids in the crowd right off the bat. “Some of them pretty clearly don’t get breakfast some days,” Mullins said. “You can just see the inattention and the tiredness. You can see the low blood sugar kicking in.”
Although Carlson Memorial UMC is a feeding site for only one week in the summer, those five days make a huge difference in the lives of local families. “There’s a lot of need in this community,” Mullins said. The church is located in impoverished Hendry County, which has the highest unemployment rate in Florida at 6.6 percent. It’s also home to many migrant workers, who stay year-round but only have steady work for nine months. “They just make it work,” Mullins said. “You’ve got a lot of people who are underemployed here.”
This summer, the church had roughly 60 children, from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, attend each day of VBS and enjoy a nourishing meal while there. “It’s a very Wesleyan approach. We’re able to provide them a good, solid, nutritious meal and give them the gospel at the same time.”
‘Basic human right’
In 2016, Summer BreakSpot served 220,486 children in Florida, still a fraction of the 1.3 million who qualify for the national lunch program during the school year. That’s why Florida Impact and other nonprofits across the state take every opportunity to promote the need for more feeding sites.
“We have made headway,” Novicki said. “We spend a lot of time trying…to help people with the application process.”
Organizations must meet certain requirements, including securing a sponsor and a vendor to provide the food. Though some procedural challenges remain, child advocates say they plan to keep spreading the word.
“What’s at stake is children going hungry,” Novicki said. “We have an obligation to feed the hungry among us. It’s a basic human right to not be hungry.”
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance journalist based in Pensacola.
Editor’s Note: For more information about Summer BreakSpot sites near you, go to summerbreakspot.org, call 2-1-1 or text “FoodFL” to 877-877.