KINGMAN - Paula Loomis is looking to almost triple the amount of children who will be fed for free this summer through the Summer Food Service Program.
Last year, the program lasted 39 days and averaged 310 children a day, or 12,067 meals throughout its entirety. This year, the food service coordinator for Kingman Unified School District is planning to accommodate about 800 children a day during the 43-day period, or about 34,400 meals.
The increase, said Loomis is coming from students enrolled in summer school, the local parks and recreation program and other summer events that will bring the children in for meals. Loomis said the summer food program is an important part of serving the area's youngest, most vulnerable residents.
"This is a wonderful program and I'm very thankful that we can participate in it," said Loomis. "There are a lot of kids who go hungry during the summer, and we don't want any of them to go without food."
The summer program feeds children 18 years and under for free with no questions asked about income or need. Adults can eat with their children for $3.50 per meal.
The cost of the meals is reimbursed to the district by the Arizona Department of Education.
Out of a school district of about 7,000 students, said Loomis, 72 percent are eating free and reduced meals during the school year. Loomis said all sites must be located in a school or have one nearby with 50 percent or more of its children receiving free or reduced lunches.
Loomis said the food, which includes hot and cold lunches, is prepared at the district's central kitchen and transported to each site. All food is served at the schools' cafeterias except for the Boys & Girls Club and Mohave Garden Apartments, which get boxed lunches. No food can be taken from the premises.
All the meals are inspected and regulated for carbohydrates, proteins, saturated fat and sodium. Loomis said participants can register for prizes, and Melissa Hawthorne, public information officer at the Mohave County Health Department, will provide activities for the children at various sites.
In Arizona, 462,634 children qualified for free- or reduced-price school lunches in 2012, but just 60,303 Arizona children took part in the summer nutrition program, according to the Food Research and Action Center's June 2013 report "Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report 2013."
The Summer Food Service Program provided 1,399,153 lunches in Arizona in 2012, program sponsors in the state rose 21.3 percent and the number of sites where meals were served increased 8.3 percent. Arizona is in the bottom 13 of states participating in the Summer Food Service Program.
"Unfortunately, Arizona ranks third in child hunger rates," said Mary Szafranski, associate superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education's Health & Nutrition Services Division, which administers the program in Arizona. "The Summer Food Service Program meals are key to combating childhood hunger during these months."
The Arizona Education News Service contributed to this story.