USDA to provide free meals for children over the summer

Thousands of schoolchildren are about to finish the school year and embark on their summer break, but for low-income families that means some of those children might not be getting the consistent and nutritious meals they receive during the school year.

To fill the gap, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides free meals to schools and other approved sites during the summer months.

During the school year, children who are eligible for free and reduced meals often rely on the School Breakfast and National School Lunch program.

During the summer, any child under 18 in East Baton Rouge Parish is eligible to receive the free meals through the USDA’s summer food program, regardless of household income.

The program is sponsored by school districts, community organizations and churches, but children do not need to be a part of the school or organization to receive the free meals.

Officials said Tuesday that the summer program has been available for years; however, few families are aware of it.

Only 13 percent of those eligible for free and reduced lunches are taking advantage of the summer program, according to Gail Grover, an assistant chief administrative officer for East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden.

“Where do (low-income) children get food during the summer?” said Bill Ludwig, a regional administrator for the USDA. “A sad fact is many of these children aren’t getting meals, at least not a nutritious meal.”

He said many children gain weight during the summer because they’re eating unhealthy foods, “like a soda and a honey bun.”

He also said children who eat breakfast statistically score higher on tests, have better behavior and better attendance.

This summer, the program will have more than 80 dining centers in East Baton Rouge Parish, which are identified on a map at http://healthybr.com/healthy-eating/summer-feeding-program.aspx.

Sponsors for East Baton Rouge Parish Summer Food Service Program include the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, Central Community school system, Baker school system, Big Buddy Program and the Particular Council of St. Vincent de Paul of Baton Rouge.

Several other community organizations operate closed sites, meaning those sites serve only the children who are part of a specific program or camp.

Individuals are encouraged to check with their nearest dining center for hours of service.

For information about the program, residents can contact East Baton Rouge Parish schools at (225) 226-3768 or the Big Buddy Program (225) 388-9737.

Baker residents can contact the Baker school system at (225) 774-5795.

Central residents can call the Central Community school System (225) 650-2918 or (225) 650-2919.