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Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Agape and school strive to feed hungry children

By Janie Southard

Kathy Bayless, executive director at Agape Ministries in St. Marys, is working w. . .

ST. MARYS - Some kids get only one meal a day during the summer. For one local family, that meal is crackers spread with ketchup that their mom takes from area fast food restaurants, says a local food pantry operator.
Kathy Bayless, executive director of Agape Ministries, says too many local children go without food once school is out. This year will be different, thanks to a new lunch program set in motion by Agape's food pantry and St. Marys City Schools.
"This year we're going to do everything we can to feed the children. When school's out, there are kids whose only meal is supper because that's all their parents can provide. They simply don't have the money," Bayless said. "It's sad, but there really are many families right here who are going without food. I see them every day."
Agape is partnering with St. Marys City Schools for a Summer Food Service Program that will offer a free lunch twice a week for eligible children in the school district. Kids eligible are those who qualify for free and reduced lunches or whose parents qualify for food stamps, according to Bayless, who credits Donna Kentner, food supervisor for the school district, for getting the program going.
"I never even thought this could be done without a grant. But Donna is a force to be reckoned with," Bayless said. "The school is providing the food through government commodities, so I know there was a lot of red tape. But Donna got on the phone and, in only six weeks, had the whole thing ready to go this summer. I don't know how she did it, but bless her heart."
Kentner told the newspaper that she was indeed on the phone a lot. As with any government service, there are miles of guidelines to follow. One commodity requirement for summer meals is you have more than 50 percent of the kids qualifying for free and reduced lunches.
"You can automatically do it with less red tape if you have 50 percent. We didn't. So we put out a sign-up sheet and then compared it to our list of eligible kids. Sure enough we got what we needed. So I began making up menus," Kentner said, making it sound easy.
There's no question there's a need, she said.
"We can see it from the free lunch forms which came in more and more throughout the year. In January, with all the layoffs, we were up to four new forms a week. That's never happened," the dietitian said.
The school district did not hesitate to cooperate with the summer food program even though the commodities arrangement is not free, as most people think it is. Kentner stressed that the point is not to make money, but only to try to break even.
"Yes, it's a cost factor. But Kathy will provide volunteers and that's what made the difference in us being able to run the program," Kentner said. "Certainly there's a need this year and if it works out maybe we'll do it next year. The main thing is, as always, children need food."
As to the volunteers, Bayless said she needs plenty to sign up to help serve the food, clean up and generally be on hand. She needs at least 15 volunteers who enjoy kids.
"Because we have no RSVP so there's no way to tell how many kids will show up," she said.
Kentner, of course, is keeping on eye on lunchtime population.
"We'll prepare for 300 and I've selected easy to fix things that we can do in a hurry if need be," she said.
Food is not the only draw to lunch at McBroom cafeteria.
"OSU extension (agent) Lois Clark is going to have some helpful information for any parents who can attend on things like budgeting and parenting skills," Bayless said. St. Marys Community Public Library has invited the kids to come over after lunch at 1 p.m. for a reading program through the end of June.
Both women are elbows deep in preparing for the lunch program, which they consider simply the right thing to do for a variety of reasons.
"I see mothers every day who can't feed their children and it breaks my heart. Maybe it's the times. Maybe they've made poor choices in their lives. But we cannot let these children go hungry," Bayless said.

Lunches provided for eligible kids:
Agape Ministries in St. Marys is partnering with St. Marys City Schools to provide lunch for eligible children. The Summer Food Service Program will run every Tuesday and Thursday (June 2 through July 30) from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Kids from age 1 to 18 who are from families eligible for food stamps or meet income guidelines for free or reduced meals may participate. Registration is through St. Marys City Schools.
Adult volunteers are needed for the program to assist in the McBroom cafeteria in preparation of food and serving lunch as well as cleaning up afterward.
"We need all the help we can get in order to make this program work," said Kathy Bayless, executive director of Agape Ministries.
Agape also is providing snack bags for the kids to take home, and any donations of healthy packaged snacks are welcome. Holy Rosary School recently donated 6,000 packages of peanut butter/cheese crackers.
St. Marys Community Public Library invites the children to come on over at 1 p.m. for the reading program through the end of June. As well, Ohio State University Extension will provide brief classes for parents on topics like budgeting and parenting skills.
- Janie Southard
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