LEWISTOWN - During the school year, many children get the nutrition they need from school lunches. After school is out, those children can eat free meals and enjoy physical and educational activities by enrolling in the Summer Food Service Program in Mifflin and Juniata counties.
Children must register for the Summer Food Service Program but every child is accepted, regardless of ability to pay. Each child participates in activities such as writing, reading, playing in the pool and using the gym or playground.
"We try to disguise it so it doesn't look like they're learning," said Marie Mulvihill, executive director of United Way of Mifflin-Juniata.
Mulvihill said the children also get to go on a field trip to DelGrosso's Amusement Park, in Blair County, or Lake Tobias Wildlife Park, in Dauphin County.
"They go on at least one field trip a year and some of these kids won't ever be able to go to these places," Mulvihill said.
She said the organization is participating in the Summer Food Service Program due to the high percentage of children from low-income families seen in the elementary schools in both counties.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education building data report from 2012, Juniata and Mifflin counties have a substantial percentage of students who receive free or reduced-fare lunches. Juniata County School District had 41 percent of its students participating in free or reduced lunches, with Lack-Tuscarora Elementary School at 57 percent. Mifflin County School District had 49 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunches, and Lewistown Elementary School had 73 percent of its students participating.
While school is in session, children eat approximately one-third of the nutrients they consume each day at school, and when school lets out for the summer, children who qualified for free or reduced meals go hungry a lot of the time, according to a press release from the United Way.
The Summer Food Service Program provides free meals to children, stipulated by the Safe Food Purchase Program, which specifies set quantities of milk, fruit and vegetables to be included in a snack and lunch or dinner, Mulvihill said.
Mulvihill said the program was very effective last summer providing 10,631 meals to 582 children, according to program statistics.
Hungry children are more susceptible to illness, anxiety and depression, and disciplinary problems, according to the United Way press release.
Mulvihill said children who are properly nourished have an easier time learning and concentrating.
Impoverished children are more likely to have dental problems, because their teeth are not adequately maintained. Mulvihill said dental problems in children can also prevent them from eating and if their teeth are causing pain, the discomfort inhibits their thinking processes. This disrupts their concentration and can also affect school performance.
Mulvihill said the reason for disciplinary problems is because sometimes children coming from low-income families may not have a permanent home. "Couch hopping" leads to children being stressed, which affects their ability to perform well in school.
Mulvihill said even when both parents are working full-time jobs at the minimum wage, the family still falls $10,000 short of the livable wage in the area.
"Because their families are struggling with basic needs ... the kids feel that stress too," she said.
Mulvihill indicated that, often, a lack of food leads to a lack of family time.
"If you want to have a family dinner at 5 p.m., it's hard to do that if you don't have a table or food," she said.
There are four participant programs in Mifflin and Juniata counties including:
Rainbow Summer, the LUMINA Center, 18 E. 3rd St., Lewistown, provides a morning snack and lunch.
Fun-in-the-Sun, the LUMINA Center, 18 E. 3rd St., Lewistown, provides a morning snack and lunch.
Project YES, 2527 U.S. 522, McVeytown, supplies breakfast and lunch to children at risk for delinquent behaviors.
JC Summer Academy/LIU, 65 Billerbeck St., New Oxford, provides a morning snack and lunch to youth.
The program is open to children ages 6 to 14.
The program is designed to give underprivileged children the chance to have a better time in school by keeping up their strength and activity level in the summer months between classes.
For more information on specific participant programs, call Rainbow Summer at 242-2888, Fun-in-the-sun at 242-2888, Project YES at 248-4942 or Juniata County Summer Academy at 436-2111.
The Juniata County Food Pantry serves approximately 1,000 clients each month by providing a week's worth of groceries to eligible people. To learn more about the area's food pantry programs, call the United Way at 248-9636.