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Local summer meal programs see rising participation


Columbus Municipal School District and Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District are hosting summer meal programs for children in need. The programs serve breakfast and lunch.

Columbus Municipal School District and Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District are hosting summer meal programs for children in need. The programs serve breakfast and lunch. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff


India Yarborough



The Columbus Municipal and Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated school districts expect to serve a combined total of more than 55,000 meals this summer to children in need. 


CMSD kicked off its summer meals program May 30 at four school sites: Hunt Intermediate School, Columbus High School, Columbus Middle School and Cook Elementary School. SOCSD started serving students this week at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary and Armstrong Middle School. 


Both districts are participating in the federal Summer Food Service Program, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. The program targets low-income areas and districts in which the majority of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. 


Sandra Pegues, cafeteria manager during the summer for Columbus Middle School, said the program is designed so students may continue to receive healthy meals during months when they are not in school. 


"I love to see them come in with their parents and know they can get a healthy meal and to see the smiles on their faces," Pegues said. 


Pegues, who has worked with CMSD for 20 years and with the middle school for three summers, said she sees about 130 students each day come through the doors to her cafeteria during the total 2 hours, 45 minutes CMS serves breakfast and lunch. 


"Community Counseling Services brings in big groups daily, a day care comes in and children come from off the street, too," Pegues said. "We have two families who come, and they bring their kids here every summer." 


Trudy Buckhalter, children services supervisor for Community Counseling Services in Lowndes County, said she helps bring at least 60 children enrolled in the counseling center's Magnolia Day Treatment programs to summer meal sites each day for breakfast and lunch. She said some students who live near Columbus Air Force Base eat at the middle school, but most enjoy meals at Hunt Intermediate School because of its close proximity to Community Counseling Services in downtown Columbus. 


"For our children, it's just continuing the nutritional meals they get during the school year," Buckhalter said. "A lot of the parents we see in this community are not able to financially provide as much as their children need to eat." 




Food insecurity 


Having inadequate access to food on a regular basis is a state many social scientists, including Ben Walker with the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University, refer to as "food insecurity." 


"Food insecurity can be experienced in a number of ways, including worrying about whether food will run out before being able to buy more, not being able to afford balanced meals and skipping meals or eating less than you should due to financial concerns," Walker said. 


According to SSRC research, roughly a quarter of Mississippi children suffer from food insecurity. 


Walker said research consistently shows school meal programs play an important role in reducing that insecurity. 


"We know that food insecurity is an important problem for children in Mississippi year round, but it is a particular concern during the summer months when students no longer have access to school meals," Walker said. "Summer meal programs, such as those sponsored by the Starkville-Oktibbeha and Columbus school districts, can provide an important nutritional safety net, particularly for students who are economically disadvantaged." 




Growing number of meals served 


CMSD and SOCSD, the only two districts in the Golden Triangle participating in the federally funded Summer Food Service Program, plan to collectively serve about 5,000 meals more than they did last summer. 


According to Robin Lang, food service supervisor for CMSD, the district served more than 29,500 meals last year through its summer meals program. That number was up almost 3,000 meals from the summer before, and Lang said the district expects the number of meals served to grow this year as the community's need increases. 


Ginny Hill, director of child nutrition for Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District, said SOCSD served 21,300 meals during June and July last year and expects to serve about 25,000 meals this summer. She said 73 percent of students in the district were eligible for free or reduced lunch during the 2016-17 school year. 


"We feel this is a great program for the community of Starkville, and we do multiple types of advertisements to try to reach all groups in town," Hill said.  


Under the USDA's national school breakfast and lunch programs, a family's income must be at or below 130 percent of the national poverty level for children in the family to qualify for free school meals. A family's income must fall between 130 and 185 percent of the national poverty level to receive reduced-price meals. In Mississippi, that means a family of four cannot make more than $31,980 a year to receive free breakfasts and lunches, and that same size family could not have an annual income greater than $45,510 to qualify for reduced price school meals. 


Lowndes County schools are not participating in the Summer Food Service Program, as majority of its students are not eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. 


CMSD will serve summer meals at Columbus High, Columbus Middle and Cook Elementary through the end of June, while Hunt Intermediate will operate until July 21. SOCSD will offer meals at Armstrong Middle through June 29, and Henderson Ward Steward Elementary will continue until July 14.




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