By Al Lowe, Contributing Writer
More people in this country are receiving food stamps than at any other time in history.
This statistic comes from Chris West, regional coordinator, Southwestern Pennsylvania Food Security Partnership, South Side.
He and Shauna Ponton, of Just Harvest, are strong advocates of a federal summer nutrition program offered to children attending sites in local neighborhoods and specially designated places in 12 counties.
"We should not tolerate hunger. This is a problem that we can solve. We are concerned about tiny children that do not have the food they need," Mr. West said.
The program, officially called the Summer Food Service Program, "is wonderful. I used it as a child. I want the children to have the same benefits that I had," Ms. Ponton said.
The pair want to open more summer sites and to also get the word out help is available.
"Not enough people know about this," Mr. West said.
The sites are usually swimming pool plazas, playgrounds, parking lots, clubs, churches and recreation centers. "They are places that children normally frequent anyway," Ms. Ponton said. Her organization, Just Harvest, located on South Side, is an anti-poverty, anti-hunger advocacy agency.
Those children who go for the meals are not asked a lot of questions. "They can bring along a visiting cousin from New Jersey if they want to," Mr. West said. "There is no stigma attached. There is plenty of food. Children can hang out with their friends.
"If they show up, they get food."
Meals vary according to the site but could include: cold cereal, milk, fruit juice, hot dogs, hot subs and pizza. The key to getting children involved is to call 2-1-1 and to learn which one is the closest site. Sites are designed for youths age 18 and younger and those who are disabled up to age 21.
These are the proposed sites in local neighborhoods:
• Arlington Rec Center,at 2201 Salisbury St., breakfast and lunch.
• Elder-ado Center, at 900 Delmont St., breakfast and lunch.
• Ormsby Rec Center, at 79 S. 22nd St., lunch and afternoon snack.
• Phillips Rec Center, at 201 Parkfield St., lunch and afternoon snack.
• Lighthouse Church, at 810 Fisher St., breakfast and lunch.
• Arlington Heights, at 3132 Cordell Place, rear, lunch and afternoon snack.
• Ream Pool, at 321 Merrimac St., lunch and afternoon snack.
This information is probable but is still tentative. Those who call 2-1-1 from the middle of May throughout the summer can learn about the availability of the sites.
The above programs accomplished through partnerships with sponsoring organizations are offered Mondays through Fridays, from June 18 to Aug. 17 – except for Lighthouse Church's program, which runs June 25 to Aug. 3.
"It is easy to become a site. What we do need are volunteers," he said. Those interested can contact him at 412-466-7711.
Due to the economy, "people are at risk. They may not have enough resources to feed everyone in the family. Or they may make tough choices. So that they do have food, they may not pay their bills," Mr. West said.
Schools may provide free lunches or meals reduced in price for children that need it.
"But then the summer comes and family budgets are strained," he said. "We want to close that gap and make sure that children get the nutrition that they need."
He said 78,000 children in Allegheny County qualify for school meals that are free or reduced in price. The summer food program currently serves 10,000 youths; so there are 68,000 not reached.
"By 2015 we want to reduce hunger in southwestern Pennsylvania by half."
He added, "I feel blessed to work on this great issue."
"Parents are thrilled with the program," Ms. Ponton said.
She remembers a family with six children having "extreme difficulties." The mother learned of her local site and sent her children every day. "She was extremely appreciative. It is sad but fulfilling to hear stories like that," she said.