Several libraries in the Athens County Public Library system are teaming up with the Southeast Ohio Foodbank to provide free summer lunches to local children under 18 as a part of the food bank’s Summer Meals Program. Meals are free to every child regardless of income.

The Glouster Public Library has lunches available from 1 to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Libraries in Chauncey, Nelsonville, and Coolville are also participating.

Other sites for meal distribution can be found in Hocking, Athens, Perry and Gallia counties. The program began on early June and ends Aug. 13, about two weeks before school goes back into session on Aug. 25.

According to Claire Gysegem, public relations coordinator for the Hocking Athens Perry Community Action group (HAPCAP), Summer is the busiest time of year for the food bank, in part because of the meals program.

“It is all hands on deck for preparation, deliveries, site visits, any extra produce we plan to distribute — lots of moving parts,” she said. “This program is integral to the health of our children. The weekend meal gap during the school year is already wide, so the summer months are especially grave.”

In addition to the Summer Meals Program, the food bank now has a SNAP Outreach program with a specialist who can help residents apply for benefits. Specialists are on-site at distributions and events and are available for phone consultations.

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, helps families in need keep food on the table, preventing them from choosing between paying the bills and buying groceries. According to data from the Federal Reserve Economic Data’s website, 8,643 Athens County residents benefited from the SNAP program in 2018. In May 2021, Athens County had 9,343 active members in the SNAP program, according to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. One-third of those who benefited were children.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, demand for assistance skyrocketed: An additional 1,500 Athens County residents began receiving SNAP benefits in April 2020, and those numbers have yet to return to prepandemic levels.

“SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger, and the more families we can enroll in this program, the more successful outcomes we’ll see,” Gysegem said. “But we still heard heartbreaking stories of children experiencing food anxiety — not for themselves, but for their parents. It’s unacceptable in this day and age.”

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