For Judi Viets, the free breakfast and lunch program at Austintown Schools couldn't have arrived at a better time.
The single mom, a nurse, explained her hours at work were cut recently causing greater stress and financial hardship for her already struggling family.
"It's not that I don't work because I do," Viets explained. "But I just don't make enough. Times are very hard, and we need this. I am so thrilled over this help. It's a tremendous help, and this really is perfect timing."
Nalania Williams, 9, who is going into fourth grade at Frank Ohl Intermediate School, eats lunch Monday at Austintown Middle School. Photo by Virginia Shank
Viets brought her three school-aged children and neighbor Joey Matias, who is disabled, to Austintown Middle School on Monday for the kickoff of the district's free summer meal program.
Through Aug. 16 the school district is providing free breakfast and lunch to individuals 18 and younger or 18 or older who are determined by a state or local public educational agency to be mentally or physically disabled.
"This is something the superintendent has been wanting to do for a long time," explained Tascin Brooks, the district's new food service director. "We completed the applications and went to the meetings and started the program. This is the first year, and we started with two sites because we wanted to ease into it and see how it all works."
For more information about the free summer breakfast and lunch program, and a list of participating school districts and sites, visit the Ohio Department of Education website at www.ode.state.oh.us.
Brooks said her goal is to get the word out to the community that the service is being provided.
"I think once people realize what it's all about and what we're providing they will want to participate," she said.
Austintown has joined the ranks of other area school districts that also provide the service, such as Warren and LaBrae in Trumbull County. The free meals are made available through the Ohio Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which provides nutritious meals and snacks to children in low-income areas during summer when they do not have access to school lunches or breakfasts. Some sites offer lunch only, while others also offer free breakfast.
Warren also launched its 2012 program on Monday and began serving meals at various sites throughout the city and Warren Township. Some of Warren's sites offer breakfast and lunch, while others provide lunch only.
LaBrae will begin serving free breakfast and lunch July 9 at the middle/high school cafeteria in Leavittsburg. The program at LaBrae will continue through Aug. 17.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, the SFSP is the largest federal resource available for local sponsors who want to combine a food program with a summer activity. The Food and Nutrition Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, administers SFSP at the federal level. ODE's Office for Safety, Health and Nutrition administers the program in Ohio.
Locally, SFSP is run by approved sponsors, including school districts, local government agencies, camps, and private and nonprofit organizations. Sponsors provide free meals to a group of children at a central site, such as a school, park, community center or church.
Sponsors receive payments from USDA, through ODE, for the meals served to children who meet program guidelines.
Warren qualifies for the program because at least half of the school district's students receive free or reduced lunches. The school district continues looking to provide the free summer lunches at as many sites as possible and is always on the lookout for new sites, according to Aaron Schwab, communications coordinator at Warren Schools.
Meanwhile in Austintown, Brooks said based on U.S. Census statistics several of the district's schools including Fitch High School and Austintown Middle School, have a 62 percent poverty rate and one, Woodside Elementary, has an 82 percent poverty rate.
"There is definitely a need here," Brooks said.