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Summer lunch program helps feed thousands of children

What might be the most important caravan of cars and trucks and vans in York County left the back of the county building on Cherry Road Monday around 11 a.m.

The cargo was food - lunch for more than 4,000 school-aged children.

Those vehicles were part of the largest food delivery in America - the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Feeding program. Like school-year free and reduced-price lunches, the idea is to find those kids and feed them in the summer.

"This program is for all children under age 18," said Susan Coggins, program manager for York and Chester counties. "The goal is simple - feed children.

"If we know that some kids need a lunch during the school year, they probably need one in the summer."

Vehicles headed for more than 140 sites in York and Chester counties. There are sites in mostly black neighborhoods and apartment complexes, predominantly white neighborhoods and in rural areas and - new this year - sites at Hispanic-dominated neighborhoods and apartment complexes.

Some of the feeding sites - such as city parks - have been around for years and serve several dozen children each weekday.

Many places serve kids normally helped by the "Back the Pack" weekend take-home food program that operates during the school year in Rock Hill and other school districts.

A Latino association in York County this year sent people to attend the training for workers, so several sites with high concentrations of Hispanics have been added to the food delivery.

At the Heather Heights apartments Monday off Celanese Road, 18-year-old York Technical College nursing student Vanessa Lozano ran the site.

With a smile, she told a crowd of kids - in both English and Spanish - to form a line, please. Kids, 85 of them, got styrofoam containers with a ham and cheese sandwich, peaches, pineapple juice, and chocolate milk.

Lozano, who hopes to be a pediatrician, took time to greet each child in English or Spanish or both.

"This is a great program - already we are reaching more kids," said Lozano. "I have found children who need this food. They need nutrition."

But not all kids at Heather Heights were Hispanic, nor were all Hispanic at Stone Crossing Apartments, where Mary Pinales ran the site.

"Every child needs to eat," Pinales said.

There was a mix of children at Iglesia Pentecostal Tabernacle, too, a church on McDow Drive that caters to Hispanics but is surrounded by the old Rock Hill Homes neighborhood mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics.

Rosa Mendoza Zuniga runs the site, with interpreting help from her oldest son, Brixon, 14, a rising freshman at South Pointe High School.

"If we can find more kids," Brixon said, "we can feed more kids."

The number of poor in an area sets the standard for the delivery of free lunches. Managers set up feeding sites near where people actually live, rather than have kids come to a central place.

All sites for the program must be in an attendance zone of an elementary school where at least half of the students are poor.

The program hires seasonal workers at minimum wage to work part-time delivering the meals, serving the lunches and monitoring guidelines that including making sure the food is eaten on site, by a child.

Some sites serve a dozen lunches, others offer scores. Sites range from Fort Mill in the north to Great Falls in far southeastern Chester County, from western York to the Catawba Indian Reservation along the Catawba River.

Yet the program, in its 27th year, has seen a decline in meals fed so far this summer. The drop in children seeking lunch is not driven by the economy, say the administrators of the program. They believed some people might not know about the opportunity of lunch.

Or, maybe, people are so used to the news of politicians hoping to cut, or actually cutting, programs that help the poorest among us that some thought summer feeding was gone.

But summer feeding has so far escaped the axe. The federal government gives out about 3 million lunches each weekday during the summer across the country, but the number of school-aged kids from free and reduced lunch households - the poor - is about 20 million.

Robert Culp drove to several feeding sites Monday, delivering the food. At each place he counted off the meals. The site workers gave out the food to the kids, and each child sat down to eat.

If that site was an outdoor site, the kids ate right there on picnic tables. If they had to sit on a cardboard box to do it, that's what they did.

For families in which both parents work or single-parent homes or when older siblings are watching out for younger ones, the program provides a crucial nutritious lunch delivered to a place within walking distance of home, said Coggins, the program manager.

It seems pretty simple.

If kids in schools needed help for lunch during the school year, they might need a lunch in the summer.

The pastor at Iglesia Tabernacle, Marcos Velasquez, speaks little English, and his church is a new site this year.

But his smile needed no translation as kids of all races ate together in his church.

To find the nearest USDA Summer Feeding site in York or Chester counties, call 803-909-7511.