a conversation with Montgomery on food network’s efforts

Catherine Montgomery, programs manager for the Mississippi Food Network, recently spoke to Senior Sun Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the network’s efforts to feed children during the summer. Montgomery has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Mississippi State University and is a registered dietician. She and her husband have one son.

How many children will go without regular meals this summer?

“Nationwide, about 17 percent of students that rely on free or reduced meals (during the school year) participate in summer feedings. That is dramatically lower than the number we can serve through our federal programs; 22.9 percent of children are food insecure in Mississippi. That’s from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap data, which is provided every year.”

Food insecure? What is that?

“There is a big difference between that and hunger. Hunger is the feeling of not being full. This is more a long-term issue and very prevalent in our state. It’s when a family or a household goes without food for an extended period of time or has to make a decision to pay the electricity bill or buy food or buy medicine or pay for food. Overall in our state, (Again this is from Feeding America.) there is a 19.2 percent food insecurity rate. That is actually 573,000 individuals in the state.”

You’ve given me two different numbers. The 19.2 percent includes adults and children, not just children, right?

“The 19.2 encompasses children and adults.”

What does the Mississippi Food Network do about this problem?

“We have currently in operation four different childhood feeding programs, all designed to help reduce childhood hunger or provide meals when school is out of session. We have the summer feeding program that we provide throughout our service area during the summer months. We have the backpack program, which is designed to combat childhood hunger over the weekend period. We also have our afterschool program, which is another federally funded program, where we’re able to partner with organizations to provide afterschool snacks or supper to children. The last one is our school pantry program. We go into schools, set up a pantry for students, families and staff at the school. It’s easily assessible food assistance in a safe environment that parents and students are familiar with.”

Do these programs go on during the summer?

“The only one right now is the summer feeding program. The other three are school year programs, most operate from September/October to May. The summer feeding program picks up in June and July.”

How many kids are served by the summer feeding program?

“In the first two weeks, we have served … 11,465 meals.”

Is that just lunch?

“We can do up to two meals a day per USDA policies, but most (sites) do two, either breakfast or lunch and snacks. It all (depends) on what the site wants to do.”

Who is eligible to participate in the program?

“Any child under 18 is able to come to a site for a free meal. We do have some programs that are considered “enrolled programs,” where the child has to be enrolled to participate. If it’s an open site and they’re interested in receiving a meal, they can go there as long as they’re under 18.”

You mention that the summer program picks up in June and July, and the other programs run September and October through May. What about those weeks where the programs aren’t going on?

“There are a few weeks where it appears that nothing is going on. We began last year to work on remedying this issue. We did begin the last school year serving our supper meals in August and September. That way, it’s a full-year program, rather than a 10-month-out-of-the-year operation. With the backpack program, the school year works best, because the program is distributed through the schools. That’s why it picks up in September. It also give (staff) at the school time to identify students that are the highest need, so we can without a shadow of a doubt, serve the kids who would benefit most from the program.”

Tell me about the supper program.

“It’s a federally funded program, administered in the state by the Department of Education. We partner with afterschool enrichment organizations and are able to provide children enrolled in the program a hot supper meal during the school year. Last year, we had a total of five sites that did supper meals. They averaged about 3,000 meals a month.”

Let’s talk about the backpack program. What goes into the backpacks?

“The backpack is made up of nine items. Everything is pre-packed here at the Mississippi Network. In it, there are going to be two pop-top canned entrée items. We have one shelf-stable milk, two 100-percent fruit juices, two fruit cups and two cereals. All very child-friendly portion sizes and all easy to prepare … occasionally, we will add some sunflower seeds or an extra snack, and we try give as much variety as possible.”

How many backpacks do you give away each year?

“We do an average of 1,800 a week through 43 different programs. The program operates about 32 weeks total. That’s September to May.”

What age children get the backpacks?

“Most are set up in elementary schools, just because middle and high school-aged students are as likely to seek the assistance provided by the backpack programs. If they do seek it, they’ll be embarrassed by it and won’t return.”

Is there anything that can be done to keep older kids from being embarrassed?

“We’ve actually looked into options to remedy this issue. We are in talks with the Junior League of Jackson and Lanier High School on implementing a school pantry there. (Staff) will refer students to the pantry, which is for students and families to come and seek food assistance. We’re hoping this would be our pilot program into serving high school-aged students.”

When do you hope to launch the food pantry?

“We’re looking to hopefully begin in October … and begin referring 10 to 20 students a month to come, and we’ll see where it grows from there.”

Where does the Food Network’s funding come from?

“We receive grants for a variety of programs. In terms of child feeding, we do utilize grants for the backpack and school pantry (programs). We partner with churches and civic organizations to provide financial backing for the programs. The afterschool and summer programs are USDA funded. For every meal or snack funded, we receive federal reimbursement, which allows us to continue the programs.”

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