When school ends for the summer break a flock of volunteers will take to Washington Elementary School and more than 30 other Pettis County sites with one mission in mind — feeding hungry children.
Now in its sixth year, the Summer Food Program is anticipating serving some 72,000 meals, peaking at as many as 1,300 a day, in a program lead by Open Door Service Center in partnership with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Originally launched by former Sedalia Salvation Army’s Maj. Mark Haslett and Volunteer Coordinator Sue Foster, the program will transition this year from the Salvation Army to a new home and renewed mission at Open Door.
Open Door Executive Director Jack Menges called the move a logical step as the program continues to grow.
“It’s really a perfect fit,” Menges told the Democrat on Thursday. “We had some discussions with Salvation Army and they had some other things they wanted to focus on, so it just made sense to bring it to Open Door.”
Menges and Don Barbour, Open Door’s board chairman, credited Foster with championing the program when she took on her new role as outreach coordinator at Open Door in November.
Barbour said he and other board members supported the change and believe the program can continue to grow at its new home.
In fact, the new program will merge this summer with a similar program operated by Barbour’s home church, Immanuel United Church of Christ, which has offered its own food program, feeding about 150 kids a day, for the last 3 years.
The Summer Food Program uses a network of 72 daily volunteers to man churches, park sites, mobile home parks and other public areas throughout the county to deliver meals to youth 18 and under. Some sites operate five days a week, while others offer meals on a less frequent basis each week.
In addition to daily meals, volunteers also distribute weekend food packs meant to help alleviate the needs of poor families who suddenly find their already sparse resources stretched even further once children are home for the summer and relying on household income for all their meals.
The program is supported through state and federal grants made available to areas whose school populations have at least 50 percent receiving free or reduced lunches. The program purchases food and pays material and labor costs — including hiring eight area school lunch cooks — which are then reimbursed.
“The entire county is at least 50 percent free or reduced lunch, so we are able to serve the entire area,” Menges said.
While the grant money provides essential resources, Menges, Barbour and Foster all agree that community support and volunteer efforts remain the heart of the program.
“We simply could not do this without the volunteers,” Foster said. “They really come in and take ownership of their site. Our volunteer retention rate is probably 90 percent or better. By the end of the summer the volunteers are usually on a first name basis with all of the kids — you can really tell they care about what they are doing.”
Menges added he hopes to see the program add additional volunteers and serving sites in the coming years.
“This is always such a giving community. The more volunteers we have the more sites we can make available,” Menges said. “When you look at how this community operates, people are always willing to help out a program when they see it is serving a real need in the community.”
Groups or individuals that would like to volunteer or suggest a potential serving site may call Open Door at 827-1613