Going Hungry, Not an Option
SWFL organizations ensure children are fed during school breaks
When the final school bell rings for spring or summer break, there are cheers of excitement, especially for those anticipating trips to the beach, Walt Disney World or any number of places. But for others, it fuels anxiety, especially in families who depend on their children eating breakfast and/or lunch at school.
Two-thirds of children in Southwest Florida are eligible for or receive free and reduced breakfast and lunch, and one in five children are hungry according to statistics from Harry Chapin Food Bank (HCFB). When they are not in school, they often go without regular meals.
Richard Leber, president and CEO of HCFB of Southwest Florida, says, “Many parents have jobs connected with tourism, resorts and restaurants; they are seasonal.” Summer hours are often cut and incomes reduced.
Tracey Galloway, CEO of Community Cooperative, echoes the concern, “Even one day off makes a difference for parents living on that margin of not being able to provide three full meals a day, for whatever reason. That’s a lot of extra food they don’t normally have to have in the house.”
Leber continues, “So a lot of kids are not getting fed. When they’re not getting fed, research shows many things happen that can lead to a permanent and lasting impact on physical and mental development.”
At Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, Dr. Patricia Subnaik, a pediatric gastroenterologist, often sees signs of early diabetes and liver disease in children with poor nutrition. “When children don’t get enough nutrition it lowers their performance in school and also affects their physical health,” she points out. “But kids are still growing, and we can reverse these signs if we keep them active and eating well when they are not in school.”
At Community Cooperative’s soup kitchen in downtown Fort Myers, children often come in by themselves for a nutritious meal, but they don’t leave empty-handed. “We feed them, then give them something healthy and easy to take home and cook, and talk to them about how to do it. Education is a big component of what we do,” says Galloway.
Education is also important to Dr. Subnaik. She spends time with her patients, giving tips and guidance on finding ways to not only affordably feed children, but also to feed them with items that properly fuel their bodies and minds. “Making a good meal doesn’t have to be expensive,” she says. “In fact the convenient packaged foods cost more and are the worst for you.”
Dr. Subnaik recommends parents provide fruits and vegetables to snack on over junk food. “If parents can just carve out one day a week to prepare meals for their children, it can make a difference. Pack ziplock bags with almonds and reduced-calorie cheese sticks for snacks.”
Programs That Help
To fill the feeding gap for working families whose kids are out of school, there are a number of federally and locally funded programs and agencies with extensive community outreach. Summer Breakspot is a particularly good resource. The federally funded program sets up locations at schools, churches, parks and community centers, where children and families can go for food. The locations change from year to year depending on availability and population. To find a spot near you, enter your zip code on the home page of summerbreakspot.org.
Although the need increases in the summer, donations often drop. “While we are doubling our efforts, there are less people here to give, stores cut back on their inventory, and local farms aren’t producing as much,” Leber explains. This is when cash is king for those wanting to help. Harry Chapin is able to turn every $1 cash donation into $8 worth of food. Approximately 96% of all monetary donations go directly to those in need.
For physical donation sites consult harrychapinfoodbank.org or unitedwaylee.org. These organizations support hundreds of local charities that provide assistance to food-insecure children and families in Southwest Florida.
Anyone without internet access can dial 211 for the United Way. “They have comprehensive knowledge of what is available to meet your needs and can connect the dots with organizations that can assist closest to you,” says Galloway.
Stressing education, Dr. Subnaik emphasizes, “At Golisano we are continuing to grow our nutritional programs with more dieticians and a team focused on education to further improve the health of children across Southwest Florida.”
Without a doubt, it is a community effort. “We are all intertwined. It’s one big web of support for kids and families,” says Galloway. “If kids aren’t fed their health declines, their education suffers, and it effects everyone. It’s our responsibility to make sure they are fed. It helps us all in the long run.”
To fill the feeding gap for working families whose kids are out of school, there are a number of federally and locally funded programs and agencies with extensive community outreach.