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Free Lunches For Kids May Be In Jeopardy Officials Fear Budget Cuts Will Add To Nation’s Hunger Problem

Lugoddrain Griffin sits on a fence railing and devours his bolognaand-cheese sandwich and fruit salad in minutes.

“I look forward to lunch,” says the 7-year-old who, along with his friends, makes a daily pilgrimage across the train tracks for the free food in Gwen Cherry Park.

Lugoddrain and his friends in the James E. Scott housing projects are among more than 200,000 children who get free meals in Florida each summer.

But despite the programs, Florida ranks second in the nation - behind Washington, D.C. - in the number of kids younger than 12 who go hungry at some point each year, according to a study released Wednesday by the Food Research and Action Center.

The study showed 254,000 children in Florida go hungry and an additional 848,000 are at risk. That means roughly 40 percent of the children under 12 have to deal with hunger.

The 300 lunches delivered daily at Gwen Cherry Park are usually gone in 20 minutes, said Adrian Williams, supervisor of the park’s feeding program.

“This summer lunch program is very vital to their lives,” Williams said Thursday. “For some, this might be the only thing they eat all day.”

Officials say it’s not a lack of food that causes children to go hungry, but societal changes and a misuse of available resources.

“The old notion of hunger is not what we’re confronting in this country right now,” said Anita Bock, the district director for the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. “You have an exploding population of birth to teen mothers, and mothers ill-equipped to deal with their children’s nutrition. Add to that mix drugs and domestic violence.”

She and others fear that proposals under debate in Congress would severely slash the money available for such programs. The plans would instead provide money in the form of block grants to states.

“It would be a total tragedy if they were to cut the lunch program,” said Williams. “These kids are already used to a pattern of having their lunches and snacks provided for them. A lot of their parents are not in the position to provide lunch for the kids.”