CAC of Portage County’s Summer Food Program for Children: A Community Partnership

The following article was originally written by Krista S. Kano and published in the Record Courier on June 8, 2020. Edits provided by David Shea to add clarity. Photo by: Lisa Scalfaro, Record Courier.

When Gov. Mike DeWine closed K-12 schools in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, he also cut off many students from their only regular food source. In Portage County, schools districts, business owners, churches, community members and nonprofits banded together to ensure every student would have a daily breakfasts and lunches.

As of early June, however, all Portage public schools are now on summer break, and as a result, some of those food programs have ended during a spike in unemployment rates. At the same time, summer camps and day programs that typically provide meals have also been canceled because of the pandemic.

Luckily, a number of local groups are committed to continue the work of safely providing meals to students throughout the summer.

One of the largest providers of meals this summer will be the Community Action Council of Portage County, one of more than 1,000 community action agencies throughout the country and 48 in Ohio that are funded by the State of Ohio and the federal government.  According to CAC, 34.1% of all children in Portage County receive food stamps, and 30.2% of all Portage residents are living 200% below poverty.

Last year, the CAC had 10 sites in Ravenna, Kent and Windham where it provided meals to low-income children, and this year, it has 18 sites throughout the county.

“This is a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic,” said CAC Executive Director David Shea. “In the past, the mandatory requirements from the federal government was that everything had to be in a congregate setting. In other words, you had to be in a group at various sites, and no child was allowed to take a meal off the site to guarantee that the kids were actually eating the meals. This year, with the pandemic, they waived all those rules and people just pick up the meals and go. It actually works better, I think.”

CAC’s locations offer free meals to any child age 1-18 and no paperwork is required, and Shea said he expects to spend $200,000 this summer serving more than 78,000 meals or more than twice the number of meals during a “normal” year.  New locations include P&M Estates in Windham, Streetsboro Green Apartments, Maple Del Manor and Countryside Estates in Ravenna and five Ravenna City School buildings.

“This seemed like a natural marriage,” Ravenna Superintendent Dennis Honkala said. “The biggest thing was that we were very consistent for the last two and a half months, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays and we wanted to keep it that way because I think it was programmed into people’s minds. It just happened that our last day of school was May 28 and CAC was able to take over for us right away on June 1. It was important to us that we not have any gap.”

Jonathan Lane, principal of Brown Middle School, said that there was a smooth transition from the school program to the CAC program, with hardly any change in the number of meals provided. He added that Ravenna City Schools staff are volunteering along with CAC staff and volunteers to pass out meals at all of their locations throughout the summer. Ravenna City Schools locations will also continue to give out free books, Birdie Bags from the Ben Curtis Family Foundation and RavenPacks and CAC is providing information to families regarding all the other services they can provide.

The Ben Curtis Family Foundation is also providing Birdie Bags to Kent and Barberton districts, as they were during the mandatory school closure. According to Co-Founder Candace Curtis, they provided 47,652 pounds during that three month period, which is 71% of a regular school year.

“This is our first summer for Birdie Bags, so we don’t have much experience with summer programs. We allotted about 1,000 bags per week. We’re supplementing where help is needed,” Curtis said.   “I’m a big fan of Ben Curtis, so to have the assistance of his foundation help feed kids is just phenomenal.  Candace has been absolutely great, and Ben actually drives the truck sometimes to deliver food.  I can’t say enough about the foundation and all the people that are helping our kids this summer.  Since the poverty rate for Ravenna children is 100%, it’s truly inspiring” said Shea.