Preschoolers offered free summer meal program

July 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

HATTIESBURG – (AP) For as long as many can remember, the Petal and Hattiesburg school districts have provided free meals during the summers for children 18 years and younger, and this summer is no exception.

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The districts are just a few of the more than 150 feeding sites across the state offering free breakfast and lunch to children up to 18 during the summer.

Last year was the first year free dinner was offered by a location in the Petal School District. This year, free dinner will be offered again at Petal Upper Elementary School.

Danny Dillistone, child nutrition director for Petal School District, said Petal has been serving free meals with the Summer Food Service Program for more than 11 years.

“This is a program that is able to feed those children who might not be able to get good, nutritious foods year round,” Dillistone said. “There are children who benefit from this program who might otherwise go hungry until school starts back in the fall.”

The meals offered during the summer are paid for through federal funding, and are supported by the Office of Child Nutrition.

The recipes of traditional meals that have been served in school cafeterias in the past are constantly changing to accommodate and follow the healthy meal guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We try to offer nutritionally well-balanced menus with multiple choices of entrees, vegetables, fruits, bread and milk for the summer feeding program,” Dillistone said.

Many organizations plan their summer schedules around when the meals are offered.

The Petal Family YMCA is one of many organizations taking full advantage of the program during the summer. This year, about 140 summer campers are enjoying the benefits of the free meal program twice a day.

“We’ve been bringing Y summer camp kids to the free meal programs ever since it was started in Petal,” Ginny Reynolds, who served as the YMCA child care director for five years, said.

“It’s a healthy, nutritious meal offered to these kids, which is usually better for them than what is brought from home.”

“I’ve been eating meals here ever since I started coming to the Y during the summers,” Reagan Veon, a fifth-grade student at Petal Upper Elementary and YMCA summer camper, said. “The food’s good.”

Stephanie Hoze, executive director of Child Nutrition of Hattiesburg Public Schools, said the district has provided free meals for youth since the year 2000, and does not plan on stopping any time soon.

HPSD cafeterias have been packed daily with anywhere from 400 to 450 community members who may bring children from local organizations or their own homes.

Hattiesburg resident, Shalanda Reece, looks after area children during summer working hours at her home. She said she has been bringing kids for breakfast and lunch for years now.

“This program helps me and the kids out so much,” Reece said. “I’m able to bring them for a healthy breakfast and lunch, and they get to see children interact of all ages.”

She noticed the children have started wanting fruits and veggies instead of unhealthy options.

Four-year-old Presley Spann, who was brought by Reece, proudly showed off her empty grape tray.

“I ate all my grapes,” Presley said.

Hoze said she has noticed children at younger ages picking up the healthier items from the lines such as the chef’s and fruit salads.

“The key is to teach them to select healthy items at an early age,” Hoze said. “We have to start stressing the healthier options earlier on so children will grow up enjoying these foods for a lifetime.”

Anyone older than 18 may enjoy the benefits of the summer meals for a small fee: $2 for breakfast or $3.25 per plate for lunch or dinner.