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Free lunches extended beyond school year for Armstrong children

| Friday, June 20, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Louis B.Ruediger | Leader Times
Abby Remis, 18, of Ford City, distributes drinks to children at one of the free lunch sites operated by Armstrong County Community Action and the Armstrong School District during the summer. Thursday June 19, 2014

Free lunches are again being offered to children in Armstrong County during the summer when they are not in school.

“Hunger doesn't take a summer vacation,” said LuAnn Fee, director of Armstrong School District food services. “We want to make sure we keep feeding our kids a good lunch each day if they want it.”

The district and Armstrong County Community Action offer the lunches to children younger than 18 at nine sites, Monday through Friday, until Aug. 15. There is no income requirement.

Community Action local projects director Jeff Boarts said the program can be a boost for families who rely on free or reduced-cost lunches during the school year.

“Buying food for that one extra meal per day can become a large expense,” Boarts said. “We don't want to see kids go hungry because their families can't afford it.”

The program, which is funded largely through the Department of Agriculture, served 640 children at seven Community Action sites last summer, and 350 at Shannock Valley and Elderton elementary schools.

Fee expects to see just as many children take advantage of the program this year.

“We see a lot of the same people coming in every single day,” Fee said. “For this area, the program has become a service that helps a lot of families who might be struggling financially.”

Of the county's five school districts, Armstrong is the largest and has the highest number of students — 2,461, or about half the student body — qualifying for free and reduced lunches during the school year. About 35 percent of the 11,302 students in Armstrong County qualify for free lunches, while 7 percent qualify for reduced lunches, according to state Education Department statistics.

The district in the summer program prepares hot meals at the two elementary schools. Cold lunches, which include sandwiches, fruit, yogurt, vegetables and milk, are served at the other sites.

Community Action Executive Director Ken Hileman said that last year, the program cost his organization about $20,500. The state reimbursed $14,500, while the remaining $6,000 was paid for through donations. The school district's $7,500 contribution to the program is fully reimbursed by the state.

“It's an expensive program, but we decided we're going to run it whether or not we end up losing money because it's such a benefit to the area,” Hileman said.

Fee concurs, and said the district would likely continue offering the lunches even without reimbursement from the state.

“Everyone here supports this program,” she said. “It's just the right thing to do.”

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1337, or bpedersen@tribweb.com.

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