Each summer, millions of Mississippi’s children rely on the federal Summer Food Service Program to provide up to two nutritious meals a day. It’s a small solution to a larger problem in Mississippi, where many of the most rural parts of the state lack access to healthy foods. Jackie Mader reports on the challenges and efforts to provide food to the state’s most vulnerable children.

The town of Rolling Fork is nestled off Highway 61, 11 miles east of the Mississippi River. It’s the home of blues singer Muddy Waters, and the site of a Civil War battle.

And like many parts of the Delta, it’s also a food desert, a region where residents lack access to healthy, fresh and affordable foods.

The most common foods that we have around here as far as fast foods, fried foods. We do not have a lot of access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Linda McGee, the food services director for the South Delta School District in Rolling Fork.

Vegetables at a local grocery store in Rolling Fork, where residents say healthy foods are often too expensive.

Vegetables at a local grocery store in Rolling Fork, where residents say healthy foods are often too expensive.

McGee says that the town’s two small grocery stores are too expensive and lack healthy foods for the 2,000 residents, whose median income is just $28,000  a year. On a recent afternoon, a pineapple was selling for more than six dollars. McGee says that for lower prices, residents have to drive 39 miles north to Greenville, or 44 miles south to Vicksburg. That’s particularly hard for the16 percent of adults who are unemployed.

“If you’re unemployed surely you don’t have a cars that you’re able to go that distance and get fresh fruits and vegetables,” McGee said.

Poverty is so high here that 97 percent of the kids get free or reduced price meals at school. And in the summertime, access to nutritious meals becomes an even bigger problem.

That’s where the federal Summer Food Service Program comes in. It’s been around for more than 35 years, but it reaches only a fraction of the students who get school lunches during the year. This year, there’s a new federal push to expand it, and Mississippi’s one of six states that’s been targeted.

Thirty-five miles northeast in Greenwood, several kids are taking advantage of the summer meals at a local elementary school. The menu today consists of hamburgers, french fries, apples, and milk. The students say they normally eat “junk” during the summer, like “hot chips, pickles and juices, stuff like that.”

For years, Mississippi has struggled to reach low-income kids during the summer. Last July, fewer than 6 percent of the state’s low-income kids received meals through the federal program.

Yvette Totten, who oversees the five meal sites in Greenwood, says many families don’t know they’re available, and some kids don’t have transportation to get to a meal site.

Children in the Greenwood School District learn about the Summer Food Service Program during a June kick-off event.

Children in the Greenwood School District learn about the Summer Food Service Program during a June kick-off event.

Many of my kids are walk-ups. And then we have summer programs within the school district, extended school. So at about each school we have somewhere between 60 and 100 kids who come every day so we know they’re going to go through the program and eat.”

Totten says she’s trying to reach more parents through radio ads, Facebook posts, and a kickoff event.

With the new statewide push, Mississippi predicts it will serve two million meals to kids in Mississippi this summer. That’s a 12 percent increase from last year. But Lenora Phillips, director of Mississippi’s Summer Food Service Program says it’s been hard to find places to run new meal sites.

One of our challenges is finding viable sponsors, and what I mean by viable is someone who understand how to run the program,” Phillips said. “Also, getting people to continue the program the whole summer long, and that’s been a big challenge throughout the state of Mississippi.”

Budget cuts are another problem. This year, Greenwood had to cut the newspaper ads that it used to run to promote the summer meals. Even with the summer program, there’s a giant meal gap. Mississippi’s summer feeding program will continue in most locations through mid-July. School doesn’t start until mid-August.

[Cross-posted at the Hechinger Report]

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Jackie Mader received a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a recipient of the 2012 Fred M. Hechinger Journalism Education Award. Prior to attending Columbia, she taught special education in Charlotte, N.C. and trained first-year teachers in the Mississippi Delta.