More than 840,000 children in Ohio depend on school for more than an education. For children living well-below the poverty line, schools also provide a dependable source of food and nutrition.
During the school year, more than 840,000 Ohio children receive nutrition assistance through free or reduced-price school lunches. So what happens to these children during the summer months? While critical lifelines - providing essential support - are available, many Ohio families don't know about them.
Now that school is out for summer, these Ohio children whose parents, grandparents, or guardians are struggling to make ends meet can still have healthy meals.
With our nation's abundance, no child should ever go hungry even when school is out for the summer. To close the hunger gap, the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Summer Food Service program works with the Ohio Department of Education to provide school-aged children with the healthy meals they need to grow strong and thrive academically.
The Summer Food Service Program - which provides breakfast, lunch, or a snack for children under 18 - is critical to staving off a potential lack of nutritious food during the summer months that can further disadvantage children who live in food deserts or who come from low-income, working-class families.
The demand for these services is significant. Last year, nearly 1,500 food service sites throughout Ohio reached children in 74 counties. And this year, there are even more sites to which Ohio families can turn -- more than 1,700 across 77 counties. With too many families still out of work, we have to expand outreach to the families who need help now.
Ensuring that schoolchildren have access to healthy food during the summer is critical because malnutrition during childhood can lead to major health problems in the future.
Childhood obesity, diabetes, delayed growth, and brittle bones are all possible health effects for young people who don't have their nutritional needs met - stacking the odds not only against their well-being, but also burdening Ohio's Medicaid system and economy.
Although Summer Food sites are located throughout the Buckeye state, only 66,000 of the 840,000 children who receive nutrition assistance during the academic year participate in summer meal programs. That's why two years ago, I co-hosted a first-of-its-kind hunger summit at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank with leading anti-hunger advocates from across Ohio. This past year, USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon came to Ohio to hold the second summit.
Rather than lament a growing problem, we discussed how Ohio stakeholders can work together to increase the number of community leaders, sponsors, volunteers, and sites that can provide children with nutritious meals during both the school year and summer months.
While 11 Ohio counties that lack summer food service program sites, it's not too late for potential sponsors to set up a program in their town. Though the official deadline was May 31, interested sponsors and volunteers can still work with the Ohio Department of Education to establish new centers for children to get meals.
At schools in Appalachia, places of worship in urban areas, summer camps in rural areas, and recreational centers in big cities, young Ohioans can get the food they need to succeed.
Summer break shouldn't mean a break from good nutrition. The single biggest thing we can do is to make sure more people know about this program. Outreach and public awareness are critical components to ensure that the end of the school year doesn't mean an end to hunger.
For a complete list of summer food service program sites in Ohio, please call 800-808-MEAL (6325) or visit my website at www.brown.senate.gov.