Kids of different races, ages and backgrounds gathered outside the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library on Friday morning, and they all had one thing in common: They were hungry.
The library serves as a feeding site for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program.
The Arkansas Department of Human Services oversees 1,339 summer feeding sites across the state, department spokesman Amy Webb said. The number of feeding sites has increased by 45 percent since 2013.
“Last year, we served 4 million meals,” she said.
The numbers from 2014’s feeding program won’t be released until the end of the summer, but Webb said the department is expecting to serve at least 1 million more meals than in 2013.
The Summer Food Service Program is a federally funded, state-administered program that serves children and teenagers 18 years old and younger. The program serves healthful meals to the children and teens in low-income areas when school is not in session, according to the USDA website.
Webb said a nonprofit organization or church has to register with the USDA to become a feeding site, then it can buy the food and serve the children, and then receive USDA reimbursement. Registrations begin in January.
“For the last few years, we’ve really been trying to advertise [the summer feeding sites]. It’s been [Gov. Mike Beebe’s] mission to increase the number of feeding sites while he’s in office.”
The nonprofit Arkansas Dream Center serves food through the program at its about 70 "Food for Good" sites statewide.
“For us as a sponsor, our favorite part of this is truly meeting a need,” Arkansas Dream Center coordinator Kristen Fagaly said. “We get to witness the kids eating the food, and see that they’re getting a nutritious meal.”
Fagaly said nonprofit group started serving summer meals June 12 in Little Rock and will continue until Aug. 15, the day before most schools start.
"Food For Good," a PepsiCo program, works with the Dream Center to provide these free summer meals.
"Food For Good was started as a way to try to bring something that PepsiCo knows how to do, such as moving food all over the country, and try to make sure that that food is getting to kids during the summertime when they're out of school," Matt Smith, director of PepsiCo's Food For Good, said.
"One of the things that we're trying to do with this program is to understand how food helps bring kids together and help give them an opportunity to play and learn in the summer when they're out of school."
Dream Center staff members take meals from place to place using a truck. Fagaly said the staff stays at a site for about 30 minutes, while food is passed out, eaten and an activity is hosted.
“We have ‘Water Wednesday’ and ‘Trivia Tuesday.' We make it fun for them,’” she said. “[After the activities], we pack it back up. It’s pretty simple and quick.”
A typical meal a child is given usually consists of a sandwich, a piece of fruit, milk and a bag of baby carrots, Fagaly said.
About 90 percent of the feeding sites the Arkansas Dream Center served in 2013 had never been served before, she noted.
“We wanted to take those on because we knew the need was huge,” she said. “We’ve had a great experience so far."