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Schools, food pantries and civic organizations are stepping up their battle against childhood hunger, a task that isn’t always easy in mostly rural Southern Maryland.

School lunches offer healthy choicesThe Maryland campaign “My Plate My Choice” focuses on the healthy foods and variety of choices available to students participating in the National School Lunch Program. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act revised the meal requirements for the school lunch program based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. Starting this year, all schools participating in the lunch program will implement these nutrition standards. The new meals include:Ÿ An increased variety of fruits and vegetables, including dark green vegetables, orange/red vegetables and legumes at least once a week;Ÿ More whole-grain rich items;Ÿ One-third of the average daily calories students require by age;Ÿ A variety of low-fat dairy products;Ÿ Reduction of sodium levels over the next several years.Maryland schools served more than 70 million lunches last year that included low-fat milk, whole grain products and a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. School meal menus are developed locally by the school system’s nutrition director, who must consider federal regulations, nutritional quality, affordability and student preferences when designing menus.For information about the school nutrition programs in Maryland or to learn what’s on local school menus, visit www.eatsmartmaryland.org.

School officials and others point out that for many children, the lunch and breakfast offered at school are the most nutritious — and maybe the only — meals they get most days.

In addition to programs that give food to families and children, organizations try to teach parents the importance of giving their children nutritious meals daily.

“Our children will follow what we eat. We are the role models for them,” said Jackie Gray, a faculty assistant with University of Maryland Extension.

More than 37 percent of St. Mary’s public school elementary students participated in the free and reduced-price meals program last year. That has grown steadily from 25 percent a decade ago. Charles County elementary students reflect about the same increases.

In Calvert County, almost 27 percent of elementary students participate in the meals program, up from about 14 percent 10 years ago.

The program uses household size and family income to determine eligibility for reduced-price or free meals. Those guidelines have been revised for next school year, allowing more families to qualify.

The free and reduced guidelines were obtained by multiplying the 2012 federal income poverty guidelines by 130 percent and 185 percent, respectively.

For example, a child from a family of four is eligible for free school meals if the household's income is below $29,965. If the family's income is between $29,965 and $42,643, the child is eligible for reduced-price meals.

Those income limits do not accurately reflect the number of families in need of support, according to various organizations and studies that say the number of hungry children is on the rise.

The Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington School of Social Work has determined what it calls a self-sufficiency standard, essentially a listing of the annual income needed for different size families in areas across the country to make ends meet at a minimally adequate level in today’s economy, according to the report.

Across Southern Maryland, the incomes needed to be considered self-sufficient range from about 300 to 400 percent of the federal poverty index, according to the report, which was done in part to highlight the differences in how poverty is defined. For instance, a family with two adults, one preschooler and one school-aged child would need to make about $63,000 in St. Mary’s, $71,000 in Calvert and $74,000 in Charles. Those amounts drop to between $47,000 and $56,000 for a family of one adult and one preschooler to be self-sufficient in the three Southern Maryland counties, according to the report.

Snack Saks help

Each weekend, 64 students at select St. Mary’s public elementary schools take home a bag of food to supplement their meals.

The Snack Sak project is an extension of the Southern Maryland Food Bank made possible with the help of United Way of St. Mary’s County and other agencies and volunteers.

Jennifer Hollingsworth, the executive director of the local United Way, said the group is trying to get the word out about the Snack Saks in hopes of bringing in donations from businesses or organizations.

Each weekend, a bag of up to seven pounds of food is sent home with children, 16 from each of four elementary schools: Lexington Park, George Washington Carver, Green Holly and Park Hall.

She said a pack costs about $260 per child to fill each weekend from mid-October until the last day of school. “It’s really not that expensive, when you think about it,” she said.

The costs do add up. To pay for 16 packs at one school, the cost is about $4,500. The United Way and the food bank are able to fund 16 packs at each of four schools. Hollingsworth hopes to expand both the number of packs and the schools served.

The packs are stuffed with peanut butter and jelly, cereal, oatmeal, chips, granola bars, fruit cups, crackers, juice boxes and tuna. They are discreetly handed to children at the end of the school day on Fridays. All of the sacks come back the next Monday morning.

The program is for children who are identified by school staff as chronically hungry. This could manifest itself through physical appearances, such as extreme thinness or chronically dry or cracked lips, or through behavior, such as rushing to the food line, being extremely hungry on Monday mornings, hoarding or stealing food or often asking for more food, according to a program referral form.

School employees have contacted the families to let them know what the backpacks are for and to make sure the food goes to the children. The food is meant to supplement other food, but if needed, it could function as meals for the child over the weekend.

Brenda DiCarlo, director of the Southern Maryland Food Bank, said there are at least 20 or 25 more children per school that could use the Snack Sak service.

The food bank saw a 36 percent increase in the amount of food it distributed between July 2011 and this summer to pantries in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties. DiCarlo said most of that increase could be attributed to increases in the number of hungry children in the region.

And, she said, much of that increase was from middle-class families. “The very people that usually donate to us are the ones we now serve. ... It’s an unbalanced scale,” she said.

Data released in August by the Gallup organization show the food hardship rate for Maryland was 14.8 percent during the first six months of 2012, indicating nearly one in seven residents reported there were times when they did not have enough money to buy the food they or their families needed.

High school grab-and-go

Breakfast is often called the most important meal of the day, and Lackey High School in Charles County offers students a second chance to make sure they get a great start to their day.

“We run a second-chance breakfast in the morning,” Lackey Principal James Short said.

Every school day, between the second and third periods, the school has an extended 17-minute break where students can grab a bite to eat from one of three food kiosks or the cafeteria, he said.

“It seems to work. Our kids really like it,” Short said.

The breakfast program at the school grew from serving about 80 meals before the start of school to more than 400 in the morning once the second-chance breakfast was started last February, he said. That’s about one in every three students, and it includes most of the students who are on the free- and reduced-meals program.

“When we first started it, students walked up to my vice principals and said ‘thank you,’ ” Short said.

“We just think it’s very important for the kids to get off to a great start in the morning,” he said. ”It meets the needs of some of the students whose parents are commuters, and it meets the needs of the parents who don’t have money right now” to afford healthy breakfasts.

School systems are also becoming instrumental in serving meals to children over summer breaks.

This year, for the second summer, St. Mary’s public schools offered free meals to any child through a program called Lunch and Learn at two school sites.

Tanisha Sanders, coordinator of integrated student services programs for Charles public schools, said there were approximately 4,700 meals served between June 25 and Aug. 3 through the Summer Meals for Children program. The program partnered with various agencies, including Lifestyles, and was able to offer free meals to students at 13 sites, including many school buildings.

The program has steadily expanded since it started three years ago, Sanders said. Before that, she said she is unaware of any countywide lunch programs during the summers.

Cooking classes in Calvert

Gray is helping with a nine-week program funded through grants and help from the United Way that offers nutrition training to clients at the Chesapeake Cares Food Pantry in Huntingtown.

Visitors to the food pantry can stop by the office and take a quick class on healthy eating. They also receive a health risk assessment from Calvert Healthcare Solutions.

It is important to devote some time to plan meals, Gray said, adding that “healthy parents have healthy children.” Planning meals allows for “smart shopping,” so families can pick the right types and amounts of food they need, she said.

The health educator hopes parents will pick up ideas from the classes and in turn, change some of their less-healthy eating habits. Gray, a former high school family consumer science teacher, said doing away with typical home-economics classes takes away another piece of the puzzle.

“Our fruits and vegetables should make up half of the plate,” Gray said, referring to the federal government’s replacement of the food pyramid.

Schools and other agencies now promote “My Plate,” a symbol of how meals should be divided among various types of food.

She said that while fresh fruits and vegetables are great, even eating frozen or canned varieties helps provide families with the nutrition they need.

The extension programs in each county sponsor a variety of programs to help educate children about healthy eating habits and the importance of farms.

Robin Brungard, program director, said 35 percent or more of the food that comes from Chesapeake Cares Food Pantry goes to children.

Caring for children’s hunger here is different than in cities, Brungard said. In an urban area, children can walk or take public transportation to food kitchens or schools to get meals, she said. In rural areas, children must rely on others to either take them to food suppliers or bring food to them.

The Calvert organization serves some 10,000 people and is trying to educate parents and other caregivers on how to provide healthy meals to their children, and aims to teach self-sufficiency.

“You have to really be smart to get the most nutrition for the least amount of money,” Brungard said, adding that cheaper food tends to have the least nutritional value.

jyeatman@somdnews.com