GREENFIELD — As she served hot ham and cheese sandwiches, dishing up a side of green beans and grabbing a fruit cup for the side, Sandy Cannon smiled, thinking of all the little visitors who have eagerly reached for free meals this summer.
The children move through the lunch line at Greenfield-Central High School offering a thank you and grateful grin to the women serving breakfast and lunch as part of a federally funded summer feeding program. When they come back for seconds, Cannon knows the entree was a hit. Or, she guesses, it’s might be the only meal they have that day.
This summer, Greenfield-Central Schools food service employees expect to serve more than double the number of meals they dished up in 2015 under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which is open to any child younger than 18 but targets disadvantaged youth.
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So far, the program has served more than 7,700 meals to Hancock County youngsters through the three sites in Greenfield. Before school starts Aug. 1, organizers anticipate serving 10,000 — more than double the 4,000 meals served in 2015.
The summer food program helps children return to school ready to learn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The program provides nutritious meals during long vacations away from school to ensure students are nourished and able to hit the ground running when they return to the classroom, as studies show children who miss breakfast and lunch are more likely to be sick, disruptive and inattentive; they also tend to score lower on achievement tests, the department states.
School district food service employees prepare the meals, and the school district is reimbursed for the meals it provides by grant money through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For more than 30 days this summer, free breakfast and lunch have been available. Breakfast varies from day to day. Sometimes, diners get a hot meal like pancakes and bacon; other days, options are simple — cereal or a bagel. Every day, a hot lunch comes with vegetables and fruits.
From day to day, Cannon, a food service employee, sees many of the same faces, and she knows some come from families that struggle to fill their pantries.
“Sometimes what we serve them is the only food they get,” Cannon said.
This is the second summer Greenfield-Central Schools has provided the food service program.
This year, school officials added another site and extended the menu options to include breakfast; they hoped the expansion would ensure more students were fed at least one, if not two, meals per day, said Tony Zurwell, food services director.
The program bridges a gap created when the final bell of the school year rings, and the lunch students are guaranteed every day at school is gone, Zurwell said.
“Summer rolls in, and there’s food insecurity in this community,” he said. “This is our business. These are our kids.”
The need is prevalent, Zurwell said. Approximately a third of Greenfield-Central School students, or 1,500, qualified last year for free and reduced-price lunches, the federal benchmark for measuring need in a school district, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.
Approximately half the students at Harris Elementary — one of the sites for the summer feeding program — qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program, data shows.
Summer meals will be served there and at Greenfield-Central High School through July 29, the Friday before school starts. Breakfast and lunch will be served at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hancock County through Friday.
On average, 146 meals are served a day, Zurwell said, with the boys and girls club being the most popular site. There, the children enrolled in boys and girls club summer programs receive lunch every day.
It’s a blessing, said unit director Candace Sexton. The children there would receive lunch no matter what, but thanks to the program, they get a hot meal every day as opposed to lunch meat sandwiches that might be the alternative. The club has served close to 2,000 meals this summer.
“We’re really fortunate to be able to do this for our kids,” she said.
“This community always wraps its arms around our kids, and this is another example of that.”
Free meals are being served to children under 18 at three sites this summer. No proof of need is required, and children do not have to be accompanied by an adult.
Through Friday, the Jim Andrews Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hancock County, 716 E. Lincoln St., will serve breakfast from 7 to 8 a.m. Lunch is available from 11 a.m. to noon.
Until July 29, meals will also be served at Harris Elementary School and Greenfield-Central High School.
At Harris, 200 W. Park St., breakfast is served from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., and lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
At the high school, 810 N. Broadway St., breakfast is available from 7:15 a.m. to 8:15 a.m., and lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.