Sabrina Thompson, The Observer

This week is Summer Meals Week in Oregon, following a proclamation by Gov. Kate Brown, with the intention of highlighting the availability of free summer meals for children and teens and the importance of nutrition when school is out.

According to a press release from the Oregon Department of Education, there are more than 875 food sites offering free summer meals across the state. The website, which lists all summer food programs in Oregon, says summer meal programs are open to all families without paperwork or signing up — kids can just drop in.

The release said that while more than 300,000 children are eligible for free or reduced lunches during the school year, only 38,908 participate in the Summer Food Service Program, which aims to ensure children and teens have access to nutritious meals when school is not in session. A federally funded, state-administered program, SFSP reimburses operators who serve free healthy meals and snacks in their communities.

In La Grande, summer lunches are provided by Community Connection of Northeast Oregon. In 2018, 5,698 free lunches were served to youth ages 1-18 in La Grande. This year the organization is again serving free lunches to children at the Riviera Activity Center, 2609 Second St., from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Adults can eat with their children for $4.

“Serving the children of Union County a nutritious meal during the summer months (is) important,” said Jeff Hensley, assistant executive director for Community Connection of Northeast Oregon. “We have been doing it since 2005, and this year we are averaging 96 children a day.”

While this is an impressive number, statistics indicate that other local children who may not have access to healthy meals in the summer are not participating in the lunch programs. In La Grande 1,123 students were eligible for free or reduced lunch during the 2018-19 school year, according to the Oregon Department of Education Database Initiative Report.

“When school is out during summer, some students may not get the nutrition or learning opportunities they need, causing a ‘summer gap’ that is difficult to make up once school starts again in the fall,” ODE Summer Meals Outreach Coordinator Jessica Visinsky said in the press release. “We want to turn that summer gap into a summer boost through access to healthy meals and enrichment programs that support a child’s educational and physical growth.”

Many of the state’s meal programs also offer activities so students can stay active and keep learning, according to In Wallowa County, “Summer Lunch in the Park” programs include education activities for students to help prevent students from falling behind during their time away from the classroom, according to a press release from Building Healthier Families, which coordinates the free summer lunch program in the county.

Building Healthy Families provides free lunches from noon to 12:30 p.m. at the Enterprise City Park, the Joseph City Park and the Wallowa City Park Monday through Thursdays.

In 2018 the free lunch program in Wallowa County served 2,367 meals during the summer.

Though both counties programs are federally funded, it costs more than what they are given to keep the program running. Through community donations Wallowa county’s programs have continued run at multiple sites.