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story.lead_photo.caption Volunteers Ken Lubbering, left, Paula Hartsfield, and Karel Lowery work in Jefferson City in 2017 to fill sack lunches for the summer children's food program with The Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri.

Children are receiving free meals at hundreds of locations across Missouri this summer through the Summer Food Service Program.

More than four dozen of those sites are in Central Missouri, with at least 15 in Jefferson City.

Building Community Bridges began serving summer meals to children Tuesday, and distributed 48 hot dogs with beans, other side dishes and desserts. The nonprofit also sent home snack packs with students, Executive Director Alicia Edwards said.

All of the JC Schools buildings hosting summer school will offer breakfast and lunch to students at no cost, said Dana Doerhoff, JC Schools director of nutrition services. Those buildings include all elementary, middle and high schools, with the exception of Cedar Hill and East elementary schools, which are undergoing renovations this summer.

The schools are staffed with JC Schools employees who worked in the kitchens during the school year.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) has been helping families in need during the COVID-19 public health emergency, according to a DHSS news release.

The meal program is designed to provide breakfast, lunch and/or snacks to children living in eligible areas during the summer months and during times of public emergencies, when children do not have access to free or reduced-price meals at schools, the release said.

A concern is getting food to children who live in a food desert in central Jefferson City.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a place a food desert if it is a low-income census tract (at least 20 percent of residents are below the federal poverty level) where a substantial percentage of residents have low access to a supermarket or grocery store.

The single food desert in Jefferson City is a triangle generally bordered on the west by U.S. 54, the east by U.S. 50 and East Dunklin Street, and south by Ellis Boulevard, Chestnut Street, Leslie Boulevard and Moreau Drive.

The program reaches children in those neighborhoods, the release said.

"Community organizations serve the meals at schools, churches, parks, swimming pools, YMCA facilities, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other locations where children gather when school is not in session," it said. "During this time of social distancing, many of the meals are being provided in a non-congregate, drive-through method to ensure the safety of the communities."

Meals are given to all children that attend the meal service locations. Children need not register, and there is no fee to participate.

DHSS provided two online, interactive maps to help families in Missouri locate where their children may receive free meals this summer. The first map shows locations of summer program partners who recently received grants. The second map shows locations of partners (such as schools) that were already established food suppliers using other grants.

Included with the maps is information about each site — what meals they serve, the times they serve and whether afternoon snacks are offered.

Families without internet access may find sites in their areas by texting the phrase "Summer Meals" to 97779.

Meals are to be served to children 18 and younger. They are also provided to individuals up to age 21 who have been determined by a state or local educational agency to be mentally or physically disabled and who participate in an established school program for the mentally or physically disabled.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides funding for the Summer Food Service Program.

More information about the program is available online or by calling 888-435-1464. People who are deaf, hard-of-hearing or have speech disability can dial 711 or 1-800-735-2966.

Community organizations that would like to become sponsors may also email the Summer Food Service Program at [email protected] or write to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, Summer Food Service Program, P.O. Box 570, Jefferson City, MO, 65102.

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