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Schools close, but the kitchen stays open

Classes closed for the summer last week, but the cafeteria is still open at dozens of South Florida schools.

Kitchens in Miami-Dade and Broward counties begin serving breakfast and lunch Monday as part of a USDA-funded summer meals program that aims to keep children from going hungry while school is out. More than 500 schools, social service agencies, parks and nonprofits are participating throughout South Florida.

“We just really hope this helps the kids in those communities who need a place to go and often need a meal during the summer,” said Erin Gillespie, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees the state’s program.

The about $25 million for the program, which the state calls Florida BreakSpot, is paid by the federal government to the state, which reimburses sponsors who feed children in low-income communities. Any child 18 and younger can get a free meal at open sites established in neighborhoods where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Those sites that aren’t open can provide meals, but only to specific children.

The idea is to make up for the free or cheap meals provided by the public school system during the school year that would otherwise disappear over the summer. Last year, Gillespie said about 10 million meals were served in Florida.

Miami-Dade received about $4.8 million through the program, and Broward $2.9 million, she said.

The numbers, however, indicate that most kids who need the services don’t get them.

Last year, 1.6 million students qualified for free or reduced lunch across the state, with close to a quarter-million in Miami-Dade. But only 230,000 or so children participated statewide.

Gillespie said the Department of Agriculture has worked to expand the program since it took over two years ago from the Department of Education.

“We have increased the number of sites this year,” she said. “Last year we had 3,000 sites, this year we have 3,400 and we increased the number last year of kids participating by about 400,000 meals. We certainly anticipate another increase this year.”

Schools play a large role distributing the summer meals, and both Miami-Dade and Broward school districts participate. In Miami-Dade, about 16,000 lunches a day are served during peak times, said Olga Botero, the district’s executive director of food and nutrition.

She said the 100-plus participating schools send letters out to all students’ families to let them know about the free meals.

“They need to eat in order to develop, so this program is wonderful in the sense that every child, no matter the eligibility during the year, can come and eat at one of these sites,” she said.

Daily menus at Miami-Dade schools are posted at nutrition.dadeschools.net. Participating locations and the days and dates they’re open can be found at http://app1.summerfoodflorida.org/.

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