Florida may be a great place to get a tan, but for some families, food can be scarce with a food insecurity level of 19.2 percent and a child food insecurity rate of 28.4 percent.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”
When you live in paradise, it's easy to forget that struggles that lay within the community, but in Okaloosa and Walton counties, there are thousands of children who go to bed hungry every night.
"Some people don't think of cities like Destin having food insecurities, but there are pockets of poverty everywhere," said Larry Haile, general manager of Sodexo, a management company that works with the food facilities within the Okaloosa county school district.
According to Feeding America, 23.2 percent of children in Okaloosa County are food insecure. That's 9,510 children in Fort Walton Beach, Crestview and yes, even Destin. In Walton County, 25 percent, or 2,790, children are food insecure.
With the free or reduced lunch program, parents can often rest easy knowing that their children can get a hot meal at school. But when the last day of school kicks in, it's often a struggle for some parents to feed children three square meals a day, which is why the Summer Food Service Program is an important saving grace for local communities.
School's out, but kids are still hungry
The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) was established by the USDA to provide free meals that meet federal nutrition guidelines — protein, grains, fruit and vegetables and milk — to children 18 years and younger. Schools, organizations and local government entities can become a site sponsor for the program. Sponsors must hire and train volunteers and arrange for meals to be prepared or delivered. The sponsors foot the bill, but are eligible for reimbursement claims.
"It's not a money-maker," Haile said. "The average cost is 98 cents to $1.10 per meal."
Destin Elementary is one of the fluctuating 20 SFSP sites in Okaloosa County, and only one of three "hot meal" sites. The rest serve sandwiches and the like, Haile explained.
Any child up to the age of 18 can walk in to any of the SFSP sites and sit down for breakfast and/or lunch. No referrals, no sign-in sheet and no proof of address. The point of the program is to serve those in need, Haile said.
"For some students, without this program they may not eat all day," he said.
Through SFSP, Okaloosa serves an average of 4,000 kids a day. More show up for lunch, most likely due to the early breakfast times. Breakfast is generally served around 7:30 a.m., but times depend on each site.
At Destin Elementary, approximately 80 kids show up for the 7:30 a.m. breakfast and anywhere from 150 and 160 show up for the 11:15 a.m. lunch. Most of the kids in attendance are from the Destin Boys and Girls Club.
Debra Corvo, the cafeteria manager at Destin Elementary, says without SFSP, she'd have the entire summer off. The program starts the first week of summer vacation and ends one week before school begins. In her five years at Destin Elementary, Corvo has worked through every summer. She likes being able to help and says there's not much else for her to do in the months off anyway.
Not all SFSP sites have kitchens, which gives Corvo the advantage to serve meals like pizza, macaroni and cheese and sweet and sour chicken.
"Stuff kids like," she said.
She tries to spoil them when possible, like the time she realized she had extra cinnamon rolls in the freezer.
"The next day, the kids all said 'What? No cinnamon rolls?' " Corvo said with a laugh.
In Walton County, there are six SFSP sites, feeding approximately 183 children collectively.
"It's important that we provide summer meals," said Leah Weber, child nutrition coordinator of Bay Area Food Bank. "A lot of those children rely on free or reduced lunches during the school year. The food insecurity rate is high, and it's especially high in Florida."
A different kind of packed lunch
The Bay Area Food Bank helps distribute 15 million pounds of food annually along the central Gulf Coast in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. The local office in Milton serves 2 million pounds of food to seven counties including Okaloosa, Walton and Bay.
In addition to helping provide food to local Summer Food Service Programs, the food bank delivers nutrition to those in need through a mobile food bank and emergency response pantries during disaster relief operations.
The Backpack Program exists in school zones where 50 percent or more children receive free lunches. The way the program works is that on Fridays, students in need are given backpacks filled with enough food for six meals and two snacks — enough food for one child throughout the weekend. A typical backpack contains, easy-to-prepare meals usually including protein and fruit juices.
"Teacher's put food in student's backpacks anonymously," Weber said. "One teacher makes it out to be a special club — The Backpack Club. The program is a great resource."
The Bay Area Food Bank is looking to expand it's reach, but at the end of the 2012 school year, the organization filled the backpacks of 345 children in Okaloosa County and 47 a week in Walton County. The backpacks cost on average, $3.50. To sponsor The Backpack Program, you can contact Bay Area Food Bank's Nutrition Programs Manager Darcy Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Food for thought
The numbers are clear. There are still more rumbling bellies to be fed. Programs like the Bay Area Food Bank and local school districts are trying to meet those unmet needs, but they need help. Whether it be through volunteering, donating or just recognizing the issue at hand.
"The first step in the fight against hunger is awareness," Weber said. "Individuals can help bridge the food insecurity gap by helping local pantries and food banks. Hosting a food drive or a mobile pantry at a business is a great way to help feed the community."
HOW TO HELP
To find out how you can help, visit www.bayareafoodbank.org and learn about the different programs you can participate in. To learn more about the Summer Food Service Program, and to find a location near you, visit summerfoodflorida.org.