HANNIBAL, Mo. -- The federally funded Summer Food Service Program provides free lunches to children age 18 and younger while school is out from June to August.
Usually, there's no fanfare to announce the lunch program's start, but this year, various organizations collaborated to throw a large kickoff celebration Tuesday for the program.
Representatives with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development traveled to Hannibal to hold the kickoff event at First United Methodist Church, one of the summer lunch locations. They recruited the help of the Hannibal Fire Department, Tom and Becky ambassadors, Douglass Community Services, and others to make sure that in addition to children getting a nutritious meal, they had several fun activities to do both before and after lunch.
"They planned everything," said Stacey Nicholas, Retired and Senior Volunteer Program director with Douglass Community Services. "If they weren't so community-minded, this would have never happened."
At the kickoff, there was a clown and balloon animal station; cornhole games; face painting; freebies and coloring books; and the Hannibal Fire Department's mascot, Fire Pup. Attendees enjoyed shaved ice and popcorn.
USDA Rural Development holds one summer lunch program kickoff in a different community around Missouri each year, and the visit to Hannibal was its first. The city was selected because the state organization has financed several multifamily housing complexes in the community.
"Today is all about Hannibal children," said Pam Anglin, USDA Rural Development housing program director. "We want to bring awareness to the program and let them know that there's a meal for them this summer. Obviously with the rain outside, we're not going to get as many children here today as we'd like, but if they are here, it's because they were meant to be here."
The summer food program started June 18 and goes through Aug. 3. Nicholas said that last year, an average of 80 meals was served in Hannibal each day. This year, the average so far has been 130 meals a day.
"Yesterday we handed out 175 meals," she said. "I have the world's best volunteers who help with the many meals this summer."
Recent data by Missouri Kids Count show that 20.8 percent of youth age 18 and younger are food insecure in Marion County. The U.S. hunger-relief organization Feeding America estimates that 4,380 people in the county are food insecure.
The Summer Food Service Program began as part of a larger pilot program in 1968 before becoming a separate program in 1975. It reimburses providers who serve free, healthy meals to children and teens in low-income areas during the summer months when school is not in session.
The thinking behind the program, its website says, is to "continue a child's physical and social development ... and help children return to school ready to learn."