SEFFNER — Volunteers lined tables and chairs at the Mango Recreation Center gym to prepare for the onslaught of pint-sized children and older kids lanky from growth spurts. Usually, 130 show up — sweaty, hungry and with way more energy than the volunteers.
During the summer, they come to this tiny recreation center in Seffner for relay races, computer game tournaments, field trips, air-conditioning — and a free nutritious meal.
Summer can pose a nutritional challenge for low-income children who might receive their only real meal of the day at school through the federal government’s free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch program.
Summer centers like Mango’s fill the gap.
"That’s the reality for some of these kids," said Don Wright, a recreational leader at Mango. "During the summer, we have children who don’t eat lunch or dinner because both of their parents are working or can’t afford fruits and vegetables. Having that ability to eat healthy free meals Monday through Friday goes a long way for some of these families." e_SClBTuesday’s lunch was perfect for 6-year-old Jazzy McKoy, who took giant bites from a turkey and cheese sandwich, her "favorite food in the whole world." Kids also were served milk and juicy orange slices.
In Hillsborough County, more than 50 parks, religious centers and recreation centers are serving meals. The program is part of an effort by the county and Hillsborough County Aging Services to pair nutrition education with recreational activities for low-income children. e_SClBBefore serving lunch, Aging Services general manager Lori Radice quizzed the youngsters on healthy food choices. Most are unable to sit still in their seats. e_SClB"When you’re on your way home and mom or dad takes you to McDonald’s, are you going to choose a grilled chicken sandwich or fried chicken nuggets?"
In a show of hands, the 50 children chose grilled.
"Nutrition education for kids this small is about making one healthy decision at a time," Radice told the Tampa Bay Times.
The meals are paid for through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer food service program. In 2017, the program provided meals to 60 sites in Hillsborough County as a way to feed the nearly 70 percent of students in Hillsborough County public schools who rely on free or reduced meals during the school year. Last summer, that amounted to nearly 350,000 meals and snacks for 4,000 children.
"Parents who rely on free or reduced-lunch during the school year don’t magically have extra money for food," said Mary Jo Mckay, manager for the Nutrition and Wellness section of Hillsborough County Aging Services, who helps host the events. "For parents on tight budgets, kids often go hungry or meals might not be the healthiest."
Mckay hopes local students take advantage of the meals. Any child under 18 is welcome to eat lunch and snack. The program runs through Aug. 3.
In addition, she is always looking for new sites to add to the growing list.
"We’ve added at least three new sites this summer," she said. "I’ll be anxious at the end of the summer to see how many more children we reached."