SIKESTON -- Finding ways to keep busy are the least of worries this summer for those children who depend on the school cafeteria for meals throughout the school year.
As a result, hundreds of local community organizations across the state -- and several throughout Southeast Missouri -- will provide lunch as well as breakfast to children in their area through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services' Summer Food Service Program.
"For some of these kids, this is the only meal they would get," said Lester Gillespie, who coordinates the eight food program sites in Mississippi County.
Meals are served to children ages 18 and under and to people ages 18 to 21 who are determined by state or local agencies as mentally or physically disabled.
"We've found when kids have a nutritious meal, they make good decisions," Gillespie said. "Crime is down because they can make sound decisions based on fact they've had a good meal. It also provides some social structure, and also they get a chance to have positive interaction with one another."
A total of 600 meals are served daily in Mississippi County with the largest number -- 200 meals -- being served at the Bowden Civic Center in Charleston. Other Mississippi County locations include Matthews Jaycees Hall, Wilson City, Susanna Wesley Center in East Prairie, Canalou and Market, Gail and Ada streets located in the Charleston Housing Authority area.
"Most of kids in that (housing authority) area go to summer school so they stop by and eat breakfast before they go to school," said Gillespie about the necessity of the food program. "These programs are crucial to the well-being of youth throughout Southeast Missouri."
In Mississippi County, breakfast is served from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. May 30-Aug. 11 at Ada, Market and Gail streets. Supper is served at all locations from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. May 30-July 3; lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 5-Aug. 11.
Summer meals are served at 16 different New Madrid County sites in Portageville, Tallapoosa, Risco, Parma, Marston, Howardville, New Madrid and Lilbourn. Pilgrim's Rest Missionary Baptist Church in Lilbourn sponsors the summer food programs.
In addition to nonprofit organizations and churches, some schools including Kelly and Portageville schools serve as sponsors.
Debbie Throop, director of dining services for Kelly Schools in Benton, said 350 meals are served daily during the school's summer school session, June 5-30. She said the program is crucial for children during the summer months.
"It's important for all the kids to eat breakfast in the mornings and lunch in the afternoon so they can learn," Throop said.
Organizations apply to participate in the food service program, and if they're eligible, then they can participate, said Melanie Madore, assistant chief of the Department's Bureau of Community Food and Nutrition Assistance.
Some school districts choose to participate in the National School Lunch Program instead of using the state's Summer Food Program, Madore pointed out.
Regardless, the need for summer food service programs is growing throughout the state, she said, adding the number of sponsors is not.
"Children need nutritious food to grow and learn, and that need doesn't stop during the summer," Madore said.
To find a local summer food program site or to report a site is needed, call 1