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Food services try to feed families during summer days

In poverty

The recent recession caused a significant increase in parts of Western Pennsylvania -- particularly in rural areas -- in the number of children living in poverty, experts said.

Allegheny County's rate of children living in poverty increased from 16.5 percent to 17.4 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But Beaver County's rate surged from 13.8 percent to 20.5 percent.

It is one of the counties most in need of more summer food sites, where children from low-income families can receive free, nutritious meals, said Mary Ringenberg, education administration specialist for the Summer Food Service Program at the state Department of Education. Beaver County had 60 food sites last year.

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Thursday, May 3, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Life is anything but quiet in Bradley and Jennifer Thompson's home.

The Munhall couple have seven children, including one foster child, ranging in age from 1 to 19.

Raising them can be financially challenging, so the Thompsons find assistance every summer in a free food program at their church, Anne Ashley Memorial United Methodist Church in Munhall, said Jennifer Thompson, 36.

"The fact that it provides a well-balanced meal and, for us, it provides structure to our day. ... It's something that (the children) look forward to and it sets the tone for the rest of the day."

The church is a sponsor in the Summer Food Service Program, a federally funded program established in 1968 to provide free, nutritious meals to children from low-income households. Local food sites will open June 11 or June 18 and remain open through Aug. 17.

Anne Ashley is an open site -- meaning it can serve any child because it is in a community where at least 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

About 240 summer food sites operated in Allegheny County last year, but more are needed, said Chris West, regional coordinator of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership, which is working to increase the number of sites in a 12-county region.

In Allegheny County, for example, about 78,000 children were eligible to participate in the Summer Food Service Program in 2010, the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, but only 12,000 participated, West said.

He attributes that to parents being unaware that the service exists and not enough sites being within walking distance of children's homes.

Areas that have an insufficient number of or no summer food sites include Harrison, Brackenridge, Tarentum, Carnegie, Etna, McKees Rocks, Rankin and Wilkinsburg, according to Shauna Ponton, child nutrition advocate at Just Harvest, an anti-poverty group on the South Side.

The summer food program fills a gap for many children who depend on free and reduced-price lunches during the school year, said Christina Winniewicz, Regional Summer Food Service Program coordinator at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

"And unlike the picture we see of international hunger, it's impossible to recognize what that child looks like (in the U.S.)," she said.

Churches, schools, recreation centers and camps are some of the places that sign up to provide the meals. They can either buy and prepare the food themselves, then get reimbursed for the meals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, via the Pennsylvania Department of Education, or they can partner with a sponsoring organization, such as the Allegheny County Department of Human Services or Pittsburgh Citiparks, that delivers food to them.

New sites this summer include Victorious Faith Evangelistic Outreach, a Sheraden church that expects to serve about 40 children hot lunches, delivered by Pittsburgh Citiparks, Monday through Friday starting June 18.

The church is seeing more community members seeking financial and food assistance, the Rev. Frederick White said.

"I guess as the economy goes, or has been going, it's affecting families, and lots of families who were in a position to help themselves previously are now facing unemployment or underemployment," said White, who said the church will offer optional activities for children during the program.

Anne Ashley church, which has run a summer food program for at least 13 years, also offers an optional recreational program with games, arts and crafts, said Christine Rager, summer lunch director

Last year, it served about 80 children five days a week.

"The need has always been there," Rager said.

Children can receive meals through a summer food program up to age 18; people up to age 21 with disabilities also are eligible.

Find or start a site

For the first time this year, those in search of Summer Food Service Program sites can call 211, starting in mid-May, to get information about the closest sites, the days and hours of operation and whether they are open to any child.

To search online for food sites statewide, visit starting in the second week of June.

For more information about setting up a summer food site or becoming a sponsor, contact Chris West at 412-466-7711 or

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