Hungry kids in Fort Worth summer program now get food on weekends, too

FORT WORTH -- Children who get free weekday lunches through Fort Worth's summer nutrition program can now take home meals on weekends as well, a change that officials hope will keep fewer children from going hungry while school is out.

On Fridays, the Tarrant Area Food Bank is distributing bags of food to children at community centers to fill the "weekend nutrition gap" between meals provided by the city program.

The bags are filled with breakfast bars, cereal, boxed milk and juice, peanut butter crackers, dried fruit and tuna packs, among other things.

"In the past, we didn't know where these kids would get their meals over the weekend," food bank spokeswoman Andrea Helms said. "This will help make sure they have enough to eat."

In Texas, 22 percent of children don't have enough food at home, the highest rate nationally, according to Feeding America, a hunger relief charity.

Hunger among children is a pressing issue nationwide as states and cities have cut funding for summer meal programs amid skyrocketing need, according to a new report from an anti-hunger group that tracked the program last year. Budget woes that have left many families hungry are also affecting local governments that find themselves without the needed dollars to feed children while they are out of school.

"Low-income children across the country clearly bore the brunt of budget cuts," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, which compiled the report released Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the new local program, SummerPacks for Kids, is an extension of the food bank's BackPacks for Kids, which gives low-income students backpacks of food for weekends during the school year.

The city was a natural partner for the new program because it already operated the summer lunch program on weekdays at 58 locations, such as community centers, Boys & Girls Clubs and other nonprofit agencies.

Food bank officials are distributing the weekend sacks at 15 of those sites, which were selected because they are in neighborhoods where most children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs.

Between 3,000 and 3,500 children get summer weekday lunches from the city, and Bo Soderbergh, food bank executive director, said the agency hopes to supply weekend lunch bags to about 2,000 of them.

So far, turnout has been good, Helms said. Last weekend, 90 lunch packs were distributed at the R.D. Evans Community Center in west Fort Worth.

Last week, someone raising six grandchildren came in for food to feed them all, said Jan McMullen, the city's human services coordinator.

"It has been awesome," McMullen said. "We had people lining up. These kids have always gotten meals at school. Then they started getting them in the summer. And now the food bank is taking it a step further into the weekends.

"It's all part of the goal not to have any children going hungry."

The program is open to anyone under 18, she said. Families do not have to prove they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches

During last school year, the food bank provided weekend backpacks to 19 schools in four counties.

ALEX BRANCH, 817-390-7689