It’s only 9 a.m., but Savannah Hodges is already thinking about lunch. The front desk administrator at the Sumter Youth Center in Bushnell is responsible each morning for getting a count of how many kids at the center’s summer youth program will be receiving free lunch. Once she gets a final number, she heads to Bushnell Elementary School to pick up lunches the staff has prepared for local kids, then returns to the youth center to distribute them.
The Sumter Youth Center’s Bushnell location alone averages between 50 to 65 free meals a day.
“Parents don’t have to worry about lunches,” Hodges said. “It gives (kids) the same meal they would have at school.”
About 100 sites in the tri-county area are feeding children for free this summer through the Summer Food Service Program. The federally funded program, which is administered by states, was established to ensure children 18 and younger get healthy meals over the summer. Although most of these sites are at schools, many community partners, like the Sumter Youth Center, also distribute meals through the program.
Linda Milliken, supervisor of food services for Lake County Schools, is expecting the county to produce 47,000 breakfasts and 93,000 lunches for a total of 140,000 meals while school is out.
“Last year we served 56,885 breakfasts and 60,602 lunches for a total of 117,487 meals,” Milliken said. “This year is higher than previous years because more sites are open and more summer programs are being offered by the district.”
In 2021, Lake County provided meals through 21 schools and three community sites, but this year, Lake is serving meals at 30 campuses and one community site.
According to a Marion County Public Schools press release, the county expects to serve 200,000 meals at 33 sites.
“This is the expected number of meals including walk-ins and summer school students,” said Kevin Christian, director of public relations for Marion County Public Schools. “This was our target number last year as well. For comparison, in 2019, we served about 128,000 meals.”
Last year in Sumter County, between 40,000 and 50,000 total meals were distributed to local kids. They expect to give more this year.
Eric Suber, director of school support services for the Sumter County School District, said the county is doing things a bit differently than a year ago.
“We are not going to do remote sites this year as we did during the pandemic because last summer we had very few participants,” he said. “It was much different when the pandemic first hit.”
Lake and Marion counties are operating similarly.
“We offered grab-and-go service the last two years because of the pandemic,” Christian said. “This allowed families to pick up meals in bulk.”
But those pick-up sites are no longer available.
“This year all meals are consumed on site,” Milliken said.
In the summer of 2019, more than 141 million meals and snacks were given to kids nationwide through the Summer Food Service Program, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Average calories for meals distributed at the programs range from 350-600 calories for breakfast and from 550-850 calories for lunch. Calories vary based on grade level.
“For many students, these are the healthiest meals of the day,” Christian said. “For other students, these are the only meals of the day. We want no child to go hungry, and we welcome all kids to stop by their nearest participating school or satellite locations … this summer for free meals.”
Summer BreakSpot is the Florida agency that ensures the Summer Food Service Program runs smoothly. To find a food distribution site nearby, visit summerbreakspot.org.
Staff writer Garrett Shiflet can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367, or [email protected].