Summer food programs providing free meals to kids in need look for more participation

For Bailey Smith, having the option of free, nutritious lunches for her two children through Greensburg-based United Church of Christ parishes during the summer means “a lot.”

Smith, 32, lives in Hawksworth Garden Apartments, a subsidized housing complex in Greensburg, and works just down the road at the Gateway Convenience Store on North Main Street.

“It’s nice that other people are out there looking out for the kids and providing meals for them,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of people that can’t work, so they don’t have a whole lot of income.”

Even though Smith said she heard of the free meals through Hawksworth management, many locals with great need are left wondering what assistance is available for their children during the summer.

“The state doesn’t really provide a whole lot of income whenever (people) don’t work, and food stamps (aren’t) always enough either,” Smith said.

Recent inflation has made it “even more difficult because (the government is) not increasing the benefits that you get,” as food prices increase, Smith said.

According to 2019 Feeding America food insecurity data, 10.6% of Pennsylvanians (more than 1.3 million people) did not always know where their next meal was coming from. And that number included more than 380,000 children, which is roughly 14.6% of all children in the state.

In 2020, during the pandemic, data analysis reports by Feeding America revealed an increase in food insecurity to over 1.77 million people. That number decreased to just over 1.5 million in 2021.

Causes for food insecurity, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, include the covid pandemic, difficulty finding resource information, existing benefit shortcomings, job loss, isolation, transportation, supply chain changes, socioeconomic status and lack of awareness of existing resources.

With schools closed for the next few months, Cheri Pogue said she wants more students and families in need to know about summer food programs available locally.

Pogue is the chief operating officer of the United Methodist Church Union (UMCU), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that has provided summer food resources to Allegheny, Armstrong and Westmoreland County children for about a decade.

The United Methodist Church Union has served about 1,400 individual children across its sites every summer for about 10 years. This year, Pogue anticipates about the same.

“There’s someplace (the children) can go for a nice meal, no questions asked,” Pogue, of Robinson, said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

UMCU sponsored 24 sites in 2021, a significant increase from previous years. This summer, it is sponsoring 14, but Pogue estimates the addition of three or four locations in the coming days.

Central Presbyterian Church in Tarentum is one of the sites.

Dave Rankin, the church’s executive director of Faith Community Partnership services, said this is the seventh year the church has hosted a summer food program.

Central Presbyterian’s summer food program operated on a grab-and-go basis the past two years, but, this year, participants will be required to eat their meals at the church.

Rankin added that many of the children who make use of Central Presbyterian’s program are from Highlands School District, which is not hosting a summer food program this year.

Through a program called the Kids Meal Network, UMCU sponsors summer food programs at churches, nonprofits, housing communities and other organizations.

“I just wish people would know that this program is out there,” Pogue, of Robinson, said. “They just need to find a sponsor organization to sponsor them.”

Similarly, Pastor Steven Craft of First Reformed United Church of Christ in Greensburg said he opened up the church last summer and found “zero kids” arriving for free meals.

But pivoting their plan this summer is what drew the church to serving lunches at subsidized apartment complexes such as Hawksworth, Craft said, which has been successful.

“There’s just so much need in our community that we don’t realize,” Craft said.

How it works

In 2021, Pennsylvania declared a state of food emergency, according to Craft. And this year, counties like Westmoreland are facing similar hurdles.

“Westmoreland County has not quite recovered as fast as some of the other parts of the state, so we still have a lot of children in need,” Craft said.

Craft works with the Rev. Don Watkins of Denmark Manor United Church of Christ in Greensburg to serve children meals with the help of a car hauler that has been converted into a food delivery trailer to set up in parking lots.

The team makes and serves 10 different entrees to kids over the summer depending on the day, including cold sandwiches, sloppy joes, pasta with meat sauce and ham barbecue.

Watkins said the program served just under 900 meals last year, and they are looking to more than double that total this summer.

“Most people, I think, are acutely unaware how much children rely on the meals they get at school to meet their nutritional needs,” Watkins said.

The total number of meals served was up “significantly” during the pandemic due to USDA waivers that allowed summer meals to operate during the 2020-21 school year and meals to be picked up.

At United Church of Christ (UCC) churches, Watkins said, the workforce is largely made up of volunteers who go shopping for the ingredients, assemble the meals and use their vehicles to deliver meals in some cases.

He said UCC’s program usually gets about eight to 15 volunteers to build lunches.

However, because these programs receive only a portion of their funding from Pennsylvania’s Summer Food Service Program, getting a program off the ground has been difficult in some cases.

The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is a federally funded, state-administered program run by the US Department of Agriculture established to “ensure kids continue to have access to nutritious meals when school is not in session,” according to its website.

Craft said programs that receive reimbursement from SFSP often have to raise additional funding to cover the meal costs.

“(We) get reimbursed partial costs for meals we serve after sending paperwork in to the state,” Craft said. “We rely on donations from the community and our churches to make up the shortfall, but last year we ended with a surplus. People were very, very generous.”

Watkins said his group has found ways to work through the little challenges that may arise.

“When we serve the children, that’s the most meaningful part,” Craft said. “The looks on their faces and expressions… it’s worth every minute of time that we spend.”

The team prepares about 20 meals for each apartment site to refrigerate in the trailer, along with extra supplies in case more meals are needed. Depending on the weather, the trailer may see only a handful of kids.

Program participation

There has also been a focus on encouraging children to benefit from the summer food programs available in their area, according to Zach Malavite of Greensburg, the new food service director at Southmoreland School District.

The southern Westmoreland County school district has offered a summer food program for years, Malavite said, but this year’s challenge is incentivizing children to make use of the program.

The district is returning to a congregate meal distribution where participants are required to eat their food on-site. Malavite said this was not possible the past two years amid the pandemic, but he fears students may be less inclined to make use of the program now that the convenience of the grab-and-go format is gone.

Based on a community outreach survey the school district sent to its members earlier in the year, Malavite estimates about 100 children will attend the Southmoreland meal distribution per day.

Schools that do not offer summer food programs instead list resources available to students and families in the area and how to find them.

Malavite said the school district he worked for prior to Southmoreland began hosting a summer food program last year in light of the pandemic, but it took some convincing to get the district on board.

“(The pandemic) really did influence a lot of districts to do anything they could to… put food on families’ tables,” Malavite said.

In addition to serving a nutritionally balanced meal, Pogue said, UMCU and its sites seek to foster a positive environment for the children who attend.

“To have somewhere they can go get a meal, kind words, some fun stuff to do, even if it’s only an hour, that’s an hour they wouldn’t have normally,” Pogue said.


Summer food program sites in the region

• Central Presbyterian Church, 305 Allegheny St., Tarentum: Breakfast 9 am to 10 am, and lunch noon to 1 pm Monday through Friday through mid-August. No pre-registration or proof of need is required.

• Southmoreland School District: Loucks Park, 527 N. Chestnut St. in Scottdale. 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

• Everson Centennial Park: 100 Jones St. in Everson. 11:45 am to 12:15 pm Both locations operate Monday to Friday through Aug. 5. There will not be a distribution on July 4.

• Kiski Area School District: 420 Franklin Ave. in Vandergrift. 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday to Friday through Aug. 19

• Otterbein United Methodist Church: 111 College Ave. in Greensburg. 11:30 am to 12:30 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, June 14 to Aug. 4

• Murrysville Christian Concern Thrift Shop: 5756 Kennedy Ave. in Export. Breakfast and lunch is served 10 am to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays through Aug. 19. To register, email MurrysvilleChristianConcern@gmail.com.

• Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh: Locations in Monroeville (261 Rosecrest Road) and Pittsburgh (5738 Darlington Road). Milk is served starting at 10 am Lunch is held from 11 am to 1 pm A snack is provided from 2 to 3 pm The program is offered Monday through Friday. All meals served are Kosher. June 27 to Aug. 19

• Monessen Public Library: 326 Donner Ave., Monessen. Breakfast served from 9 to 10 am and lunch served from noon to 1 pm Monday to Thursday through Aug. 18. A meal will be provided for Friday on Thursdays since the library is closed on Fridays. Registration is not required, but it is encouraged to ensure that the library has a meal available for every attendee. Those interested in registering can call the library at 724-684-4750.

• Jeannette Public Library: 500 Magee Ave. Lunch is served from noon to 1 pm on Wednesdays and Fridays.

• Natrona Ball Field: 12 River Road in Natrona. 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Monday through Friday. June 6 to July 29. No registration is required.

• Eastmont Estates: 746 Eastmont Drive in Greensburg. Lunch is served from 12:30 to 1:30 pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

• Hawksworth Garden Apartments, 750 N. Main St. in Greensburg. Lunch is served from 11 am until noon on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

More sites can be found on the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service Summer Meals Site Finder.

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