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Thousands of children across the region will finish the school year next week and commence their summer break, but for some children of low-income families it could mean going hungry as they no longer are getting the consistent meals they received throughout the academic year.
Dawn Crayco, deputy director of End Hunger Connecticut!, said children are needlessly hungry because many families don't know about the federally sponsored summer nutrition programs that offer free breakfasts and lunches to children under 18. She said there are no forms to fill out and no child will be denied a nutritious meal.
"There are a lot of financial stressors that families face during the summer," Crayco said. "There is an additional family member in your home that you have to feed breakfast and lunch to. If they are sending them to camp, they are also sending along a lunch and that draws on the family's food supply. There may be additional cost of day care. All these factors can stretch already tight budgets."
The summer meal programs are held after the school year ends at apartment complexes, schools, community centers, churches and parks. Crayco said there are more than 400 feeding sites across the state, and yet many families aren't taking advantage of the free meals.
She said End Hunger Connecticut! will have "blitz days" starting Saturday to get word out.
Volunteers will be in New London next Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Williams Park on Broad and Williams streets to let the public know where children and teens can get a free meal.
She said a study by the national organization Food Research and Action Center found that Connecticut ranks fourth in the nation in feeding at least one in four low-income children during the summer.
The FRAC study found that the average daily participation in Connecticut last July was 38,107. Nationally, 3 million children took part. The program is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in Connecticut administered by the state Department of Education.
"When the school years ends, millions of low-income children lose access to school meals, including about 147,587 in Connecticut," said the executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, Lucy Nolan. "It is in Connecticut's best interest to ensure that such children have adequate nutrition during the summer so they stay healthy, active and return to school in the fall ready to learn. While we are extremely proud of our place, nationally, we still have a lot of work to do."
Ernie Koschmieder, food service director for Groton public schools, said last summer was the first time Groton participated in the free meal program. He had previously worked in Windham County, where the program is popular, and he brought it to the town and city because he felt children would benefit from it.
Last year there were five feeding sites in Groton, which - in 38 days - served a total of 29,000 meals. This year the number of sites is doubling.
"I wanted to capture more areas and reach out to more families that couldn't travel to one of the five sites," Koschmieder said. "We learned a lot from last year, and we learned that there was a need for it."
He said the meals are nutritious and, whenever possible, fresh produce from farms is served.
"There are parents that don't have the summers off to be with the children," Koschmieder said. "We are filling that gap because the children still need to eat. We're also trying to alleviate the financial strain that providingthese meals has on some families."
Samantha Wilson, child nutrition program manager for New London, said the city's program will start Monday almost all over the city - "wherever kids congregate."
Last summer, a total of 55,000 meals were served. She said the program is especially important since 85 percent of the city's students qualify for free or reduced meals.
"We take care of the kids during the school year, and we are just continuing that over the summer," said Wilson. "It's a citywide effort. I have heard from parents who are so grateful because it relieves the stress of figuring out how they are going to feed their kids."
Michelle Falvey, assistant to the food service director in Norwich, said there will be 23 open sites at schools, playgrounds and apartment centers throughout the city.
Last July and August, she said, 41,520 breakfasts and lunches were served.
"We try to make it easy for children to come and get it," said Falvey. "I think it's a really good opportunity to continue what we do throughout the school year. The need is definitely there. If they show up to eat, we are going to feed them."
To find the nearest food site, go to www.ctsummermeals.org , call toll free 211 or text 'CTMeals' to 877-877.