CLEARWATER — A new program launched by the Juvenile Welfare Board and the Pinellas public defender’s office will provide about 35,000 weekend meals to children in Pinellas County this summer.
The Summer Feeding Program, which launched Thursday, will hand out 6,000 meals every weekend this summer to “food-insecure” children across the county. The cost of those meals, absorbed by the publicly funded welfare board, is about $103,000.
The school district provides breakfast, lunch and dinner, in some cases, to students enrolled in its Summer Bridge program, a summer school program that enrolled about 12,000 students thus far. However, on the weekends it often is difficult for those children to get consistent meals, said Elizabeth Rhodes, spokeswoman with the public defender’s office.
“That’s the whole mind-set behind this. The schools provide food during the week for the children, but on the weekends they don’t eat,” Rhodes said. “That’s where we’re stepping in to give them some shelf-stable meals they can open and prepare themselves without having to wait for parents.”
Students can pick up food items with a long shelf life, such as juice boxes, milk, apple sauce, crackers and easy-open options such as chili, beef stew or spaghetti and meatballs. The prepackaged meals, provided by GA Food Services Inc., cost the board about $3 each but are free to recipients. Parents also have to sign a waiver ensuring the meals will only be eaten by their child.
The meals will be distributed each Thursday and Friday at nine elementary schools determined to have the highest needs: Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Melrose, New Heights, High Point, Belleair, Sandy Lane and Tarpon Springs. Meals also will be distributed at Rainbow Village in Largo, a public housing development.
The distribution sites are in what Pinellas County and the welfare board have determined to be “areas of need” based on their recent study on the Economic Impact of Poverty.
“I don’t think people understand the depth of poverty in Pinellas County,” Public Defender and welfare board member Bob Dillinger said. “When you give children food and they just start slamming it into their mouths, you know they’re really hungry. ... Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry, they’re sick more often and they’re disruptive.”
The Summer Feeding Program is modeled after the Beth Dillinger Foundation’s “Nourish to Flourish,” started by Dillinger and his wife, Kay, last year through the foundation created in memory of their daughter. About 1,000 students received weekend meals through Nourish to Flourish, funded by donations from individuals and groups such as Bank of America.
The school district and the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services also will provide free breakfast and lunch during the summer to any child 18 or younger living in areas where 50 percent or more of the student population receives free or reduced-price lunches at school. More than 7,000 lunches should be delivered to children this summer through Summer BreakSpot, about 1,000 more than last year.
Hot and cold meals from the school district will be delivered to 130 schools, churches, housing developments and community organizations, and by food trucks throughout the county. Breakfasts will be served from 7 to 9 a.m. and lunch from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., depending on location.
More than 20 percent of children in the United States are “food-insecure,” meaning they have insufficient access to nutritionally adequate food, according to Feeding America. In Pinellas, where about 45,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, that number is about 24 percent.