For those facing issues of food insecurity, not knowing where every meal is coming from and when, the needs do not go away as seasons change.

Children who qualify for assistance for meals throughout the school year can find summer to be challenging.

That's why the communities of Gahanna and Westerville offer assistance programs for families, thanks to local organizations and their public school systems.

Sarah Huffman, the new coordinator of the Child Nutrition Program for Westerville Area Resource Ministry, said there isn't one figure WARM uses to identify Westerville residents who are food insecure.

"But we do know that (about) 35% of children attending Westerville City Schools are eligible for free and/or (reduced-price) lunch," she said. "This gives WARM a good starting point when understanding food insecurity throughout the Westerville City School District."

At the end of the last academic year, Kari Dennis, Westerville schools' manager of food services and purchasing, said 36%, or 5,400 of the district's students, were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches for April.

That compares to 35.3%, or 5,300 students, in April 2018.

In Gahanna, Gahanna Residents In Need director Brenda Johnston said she doesn't have any estimate on the number of Gahanna residents who are considered food insecure, but GRIN provides thousands of meals to residents annually.

Within the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools, however, Linda Green, child-nutrition supervisor, said 25%, or 1,891 students, were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in April.

That compares to 25.5%, or 1,934 students, in April 2018.

To address needs, the two communities have developed summer-lunch programs to help students when school is not in session.

In Gahanna, food assistance comes in the form of the Summer Lunch Club, while the Westerville Area Kids Lunch Club serves students there.

Summer Lunch Club

All correspondence that Johnston sends on behalf of GRIN states, "Food insecurity is real and affects nearly every aspect of life, even beyond the immediate and obvious effects on physical health."

GRIN is a communitywide, faith-based organization committed to helping residents of the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools.

The organization recently concluded the 2019 Summer Lunch Club, a program that was developed because it became apparent that children and their families didn't have food in the summer when the schools were not in session, Johnston said.

"Summer Lunch (Club) falls under the mission of GRIN to provide basic needs," she said.

This year, the club started June 3 and ended Aug. 9.

Johnston said 5,151 meals were served.

>> Q&A on food assistance <<

GRIN employs two site managers at Goshen Lane Elementary School, 370 Goshen Lane, and Chapelfield Elementary School, 280 Chapelfield Road, where volunteers serve lunches free of charge.

During the week of July 12, 54 individuals were served at Chapelfield and 51 were served at Goshen Lane, according to Johnston. In total, 53 adults and 204 children were served through the program.

Johnston said several churches and businesses served lunches.

She said the club isn't just for students.

"We have some adults come without kids," she said. "Many get to-go lunches. On Fridays, they receive more to supplement the weekend."

Gahanna's Wendy Miller said she has participated in the club since 2014, when GRIN took it over from a group of local clergy and business partners.

"I'm so grateful to be here," Miller said. "It helps me during the summertime. It has helped me with my health. The doctor says I'm eating right (when I come here)."

Miller said she would be hurting without the program.

"The people who come here are wonderful," she said. "I thank them every time after we eat. There's good conversation, and they listen and help out."

Lolly Sweeney, a Goshen Lane site coordinator substitute, said she loves working for the program.

"You never know when you will need help," she said.

Johnston said some of the Summer Lunch Club families weren't attending the GRIN Back to School Fair, so on the last day of Summer Lunch Club, the organization takes book bags to both sites.

The website grin4gahanna.org has more information on program and volunteer opportunities.

Kids Lunch Club

The Westerville Area Resource Ministry offers the Westerville Area Kids Lunch Club, a free program that provides children ages 1 to 18 years old with nutritious meals and coordinated enrichment activities throughout the summer.

Huffman said it's open to all children, as the name of the club implies, but no adults.

The Kids Lunch Club began in the summer of 2011 at Ridgewood Park, and it has expanded each year since, according to the WARM website, warmwesterville.org.

Huffman said the club served 1,257 children this summer. Overall, WARM served 11,374 lunch meals and supplied 10,482 weekend meals to children in need, totaling 21,856 meals. The club distributed 21,398 pounds of fresh produce at these sites.

This year the club started June 3 and ended Aug. 9.

Tami Santa, student-assistance programs coordinator for the Westerville City School District, said the club is offered in 10 locations every weekday all summer.

She said Share Bac A Pac is the school district's biggest food-insecurities program; it also is coordinated through WARM.

The program provides healthful foods and snacks to children who are at risk of hunger on weekends and during school breaks when free and reduced-price meals aren't available, she said.

"The process is very simple," Santa said. "We indicate how many food bags we need and WARM drops them off every week, all school year long."

She said schools try to publicize the program in various ways, but teachers, counselors and administrators do a wonderful job of knowing which students and families are in need.

"We are working together as a district to improve marketing, identification, while keeping confidentiality on food insecurity," Santa said.

The district previously worked with Elizabeth Keeran, former WARM coordinator for child-nutrition programs.

Keeran said WARM provided 10,224 bags, which equates to 51,120 meals, during the 2018-19 academic year.

On average, Keeran said, WARM serves 250 to 275 students weekly.

In dealing with food insecurities, Dennis said, last school year, a counselor reached out to her about some needs at the high school level.

"Instead of food insecurities being a food-service concern, we got in conversation about looking at it differently," she said. "It was about how can we close the gap. There's a lot of regulations for food regulations and there isn't necessarily a solution. By sitting at the table with the professionals, we're saying, 'Here are the rules, how do we help the child?' "

Dennis said she, Santa and other school personnel work collaboratively.

"What we recognize is we work together to support the student population," she said. "The food-service application is confidential."

Dennis said it feels like the gap is closing with counselors and other staff members having conversations.

"It feels good," she said. "When a student borrows for a few meals, we get a list from the counselor. Sometimes it's forgetting lunch money.

"We can help families, whether that's through a paper (or) online application. Sometimes we have even identified people who were homeless who we didn't realize they were homeless."

She said community groups have picked a school at times and paid any negative lunch balances.

"Any one of the lunch ladies at the buildings would be able to help anyone (who wanted to donate)," Dennis said. "Any and every amount is always appreciated."

Gahanna Residents in Need is at 165 Granville St, Gahanna. It can be contacted at 614-214-47474 or grin@grin4gahanna.org. WARM is at 150 Heatherdown Drive, Westerville. It can be contacted at 614-899-0196.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla

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