Summer meal programs feed thousands

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published June 9, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 7, 2013 at 2:06 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Lynne Chapman, child care director at the YMCA in Hot Springs, hands a lunch plate to Devin Nieto, as Emma Compas and Andrew Starks wait in line.

Lisa Autry, director of family services and aquatics at the Hot Springs Family YMCA, said the end of school is a crisis for many of the young people in Garland County and around the state.

“When the school year ends, so do the school lunches, and the kids face a food desert,” she said Wednesday. “I remember when it was time for the everyone to eat their lunch. There would be one child with only a pack of crackers, the next children might have a full meal and more in their lunchbox, and the next child would sit self-consciously with nothing. I shared a lot of my lunches in those days.”

Today, 120 to 130 children who come to the YMCA near Mercy Hospital will get a free lunch. Dean Ehrenheim, CEO of the Y, said the summer food program started Tuesday, and Autry said it would continue until Aug. 16, the Friday before Hot Springs schools open on Aug. 19.

The Hot Springs Y gave out 12,000 lunches to children in 2012. Add after-school food served during the school year, and it comes to 19,626 free meals for Garland County children. Nationally, YMCAs across the country

provided 7 million meals to 70,000 children during summer 2012.

Autry said the children who qualify for the federal free lunch program can have a free meal at the YMCA.

“We are an open site,” Autry said. “Any young person under the age of 18 who gets a free school lunch can come in and eat here.”

The free meal program created at the Y was one of the projects that impressed Ehrenheim when he became CEO in April 2012. Through the support of No Kid Hungry, a project of the Share our Strength Foundation, the Y purchased a grill that is used to cook some dishes for the meal program at the Hot Springs YMCA.

On Wednesday, the Y offered turkey sandwiches on wheat bread, with cheese and lettuce, along with pickles, potato salad and applesauce, served with milk or grape juice.

“The Hot Springs Family Y is committed to stepping in and helping to ensure our children stay healthy and strong,” Ehrenheim said.

The Y’s staff has stepped up that commitment this year by opening two more programs that offer free food for children in Garland County.

“We opened a program at the ARC Isle center — part of the Health-Care Pioneers program supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission in Hot Springs — “and at our Mountain Pine Day Camp held at Mountain Pine High School,” Autrey said. “In all, we serve about 270 meals a day in the three centers.”

In Mountain Pine, the Y program also provides hot meals for summer-school students, student athletics training and practicing in the summer at the school and a local literacy program, Autry said.

“We want to try and do something new and exciting with the food, something special,” Ehrenheim said. “We will combine the food with games and activities that will offer something positive with healthy food to create positive memories.”

Across the country, the YMCA of the USA, now called Y-USA, is working to promote healthy eating with its Health-Care Pioneers program for kids of all backgrounds, Ehrenheim said. The success of the program in Hot Springs has been recognized by the national organization. Last year, staff from the Hot Springs YMCA made a presentation about the summer food program to a national Y conference in Denver.

Ehrenheim left the Hot Springs Y on Wednesday to fly to Washington, where he was to take part in a program at the White House on Friday aimed at highlighting the Hot Springs and national Y-USA summer food efforts.

“I will be representing smaller Y’s in acknowledging the Walmart Foundation as a major supporter of our program,” he said. “The president’s event is called Champions of Change, and I will give an award to the Walmart Foundation for their championing our cause.”

The Walmart Foundation has been beneficial for the Hot Springs Y, Autry said. The majority of the funding for the summer meals comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is distributed through the special nutrition program of the division of child care services of the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

“[The Walmart Foundation]

has given us money that allowed us to enhance or buy equipment we needed for the food program,” she said. “More importantly, they helped us have fresh fruit and vegetables for the program.”

Last year, the Y also raised some of the fresh produce for the free meals program in a garden on the Hot Springs campus. The children could work and harvest from the garden as they learned about the life cycle of plants.

Thirty locations are offering the summer food programs in the Tri-Lakes Edition coverage area this summer. There are 17 in Garland County, seven in Clark County, four in Saline County and two in Hot Spring County.

For information on those locations, contact the ADHS Special Nutrition Program in Little Rock by calling (800) 482-5850, ext. 28869.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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