Summer food program helps nourish children in Baldwin Borough area
Mariah Morris munched on a salami-and-cheese sandwich as she chatted with her father about her favorite foods.
Father and daughter laughed together while playing a game of ring toss and coloring a picture of Strawberry Shortcake.
“I always get chocolate milk, everywhere. Even at school, Daddy,” the 9-year-old from Pitcairn said, as she ate a free lunch at Baldwin United Presbyterian Church on Knoedler Road last week. “I like it here. You can color and play games and eat and have fun.”
The latest U.S. Census indicated that 1,100 children living in a section of Baldwin Borough centered at the 55-acre Residences of South Hills housing complex qualify for the National School Lunch Program's income-based free or reduced-price lunches during the school year.
Yet, a study by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Carnegie Mellon University last fall found that this was the most underserved area for summer lunch programs in Allegheny County, with no program for the children within a 1-mile radius, said Chris West, Allegheny County regional coordinator for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, based in Duquesne.
A partnership between Baldwin United Presbyterian Church and the nonprofit South Hills Interfaith Ministries, or SHIM, helped launch a program to offer free lunches for children and youths ages 18 and younger at the church each weekday beginning at the end of July. The Allegheny County Department of Human Services summer food program provides the nutrition.
“They don't stop growing. They don't stop eating on a school schedule,” the Rev. Robert Walkup said. “We want to serve those who are in need.”
The free summer lunches are available to anyone age 18 or younger from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The need in the area, which extends in the north to Jean Drive and reaches to Curry Hollow Road on the southern end, has been apparent for years, Walkup said. The area also covers a portion of the borough that goes from Curry Road on the west side and to state Route 51 on the east.
The church, with 75 members, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer, has hosted English-as-a-second-language classes through the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council for the growing refugee population from Nepal and Bhutan living in the area for the last several years, Walkup said.
Church and SHIM leaders were informed of the lapse in summer food programs in the area this spring, SHIM executive director Jim Guffey said.
“That screamed out to both of us that it demands a response,” Guffey said. “We wanted to help feed these kids.”
Volunteers came from Baldwin United Presbyterian Church, St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church and the Jewish congregation Temple Emanuel of South Hills in Mt. Lebanon. All volunteers were required to get clearances to work with children to assist with the program, Walkup said. Dietary rules also must be followed, he said.
The program launched July 22. In the first six days, 99 meals were served to 66 different children. There were 22 children who returned.
The cold lunches are delivered through a program run by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.
The county's Department of Human Services sponsors 83 sites and has been in existence for more than 30 years, said operation manager Lynda Black. Funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is funneled through the Pennsylvania Department of Education to the county for the program.
So far this year, the county has served 33,131 breakfasts and 61,801 lunches.
Next year, the hope is to begin serving breakfast and hot lunches, Guffey said. SHIM leaders also hope to launch a satellite food pantry in Baldwin by fall.
Advertising for the program mostly has come from word of mouth, Walkup said. Volunteers also walked door to door in the apartment complex, and fliers are distributed.
“The challenge of the suburbs is transportation,” Guffey said.
Most of the children walk to the program. Some come with parents. Others bring friends.
“They just love it. They're staying after and playing. They're not just eating,” said site supervisor Diane McGreevy, a deacon at Baldwin United Presbyterian Church.
Gloria Choquehuanca, who has lived in the Residences of South Hills complex for two years, brought her 3-year-old son, Austin, to the program so he could practice eating outside of his home for when he goes to school.
Having a healthy lunch and being on a schedule is important for kids, she said.
Many free summer lunch programs are offered in the Mon Valley area, along with the east suburbs, West said. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank serves as a link to assist in getting sites set up and increasing capacity.
In Allegheny County, the latest U.S. Census showed that about 70,000 children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, West said. Yet only 10,000 participate in summer lunch programs.
The programs are not just about providing meals to the children but about helping them socialize and keeping them nourished, West said.
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.