By Susan L. Wright
If you happen to be a member of one of the six area YMCAs -- or a visitor at any of a number of other recreational centers, schools or other sites -- you might have wondered about the sign hanging outside announcing free meals for children.
They're part of a national free summer meal program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is designed to take up the slack for the children who receive free or reduced price lunches or breakfasts during the school year. Those children have to qualify, which means their families have to apply and have their income verified.
The school year food assistance is only available to families who fit certain income criteria -- generally under or within a certain percentage of the official poverty level.
The summer program is open to all children under 18 years old at any of the sites.
There are a total of more than 60 sites in Volusia County.
Liz Kammer, the district executive director for the Volusia County Ys, said the six Y family center sites in the area are all now part of the program.
The majority of the meals they serve through the program are served to children who are enrolled in the regular YMCA summer camp programs, many children of working parents who need a place to go during the long summer vacation. However, Ms. Kammer added, any child is welcome to come to one of the sites for a healthy, nutritious meal.
In June, she said a total of 5,873 breakfasts and 7,287 lunches were served to area children through the program. While the Y sites don't keep separate records to show how many meals were served to children who came in specifically for the meals without being part of a program, Ms. Kammer said on average those in charge of the sites report just about five children have shown up just for the meals so far.
At the Port Orange YMCA, Kern Cox, who is in charge of the children's summer program, including the free meals, estimated they've had about 15 children who weren't in the programs show up on any given day.
Ms. Kammer said the Volusia YMCAs have been participating in the program for five years and she'd seen an increase in the numbers of meals served every year since the beginning.
The meals are nutritious and healthy -- they're prepared to conform to the USDA requirements, including 30 percent of the USDA recommended daily number of calories and other nutritional elements, she says.
The summer program does not provide hot meals -- the breakfasts are based on cold cereals with a fruit side dish and milk or fruit juice. According to Pat James, Volusia County's manager for the program countywide, a typical lunch meal will include a grilled chicken sandwich with milk or juice and a fruit, which might be canned or fresh and condiments for the sandwich.
Ms. Kammer said the program is very important in the county since more than 50 percent of the children countywide are eligible for free and reduced price breakfast and lunch programs when school is in session.