Ryan Geske no longer hears “I’m hungry.”

As the director of operations at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Toledo, Ohio, this is no small feat.

The change came around 2007 when the Boys & Girls Clubs partnered with local organization Connecting Kids to Meals, which provides free, hot, and healthy meals to kids under 18.

“Kids would come and they would be hungry, and there wasn’t much that we could do 20 years ago,” Geske says. “Now we have that resource of a delicious hot lunch to serve.”

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In just the first half of 2023, Connecting Kids to Meals has provided 37,000 dinners and 32,000 snacks across eight Boys & Girls Club sites. 

And, with three additional sites, they’re on track to significantly surpass totals from the last two years: 51,000 dinners and 45,000 snacks in 2022, and 30,000 dinners and 27,000 snacks in 2021.

“It helps bridge that gap for parents that are relying on us after school” and in the summertime, Geske says. “I can’t undersell the importance of this program to us.”

Community-Wide Benefits

In the Northwest Ohio region that Connecting Kids to Meals serves, about 55% of the kids who come to eat are Black, 30% are white, and 11% are Hispanic, says Wendi R. Huntley, Esq., president and CEO of Connecting Kids to Meals.

And, as a Black-led organization, they understand the importance of what they’re doing.

Courtesy of Connecting Kids to Meals

“It means a lot to be able to support families and to really serve the kids in our community,” Huntley says.

And, unlike other programs, kids don’t need to show identification or other proof in order to eat. They just need to show up.

“It’s the site that has to be deemed eligible for our programs that we’re running,” Huntley says. Sites are designated by the USDA based on a number of factors, including whether at least 50% of the student population qualifies for free or reduced meals.

While Connecting Kids to Meals feeds kids 18 and under, the benefits have a ripple effect throughout the community.

It eases the financial burden on families and helps foster a sense of safety, security, and belonging. Aside from getting hot and healthy meals at these locations, kids can socialize and see their friends.

“It really helps to establish a healthier mindset, along with a healthier lifestyle for our kids in our communities, which will reap benefits down the road,” Huntley says.

Connecting Kids to Meals After School and All Summer Long

That reality is what makes the work of organizations like Connecting Kids to Meals so necessary.

Now in its 20th year, the organization continues to serve free and healthy meals to students under 18 in “low- to moderate-income areas, as well as underserved areas of Northwest Ohio,” Huntley says.

They partner with schools, summer sites, libraries, community centers, Boys & Girls Clubs, after-school programs, YMCAs — “anywhere kids are gathering, we want to make sure that we are there to create an opportunity for access to healthy foods,” Huntley says.

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At the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, 13% of Black families nationally were picking up free meals, and 21% were using EBT cards to buy groceries, according to a Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey taken in June 2023.

And heading into the summer months, 32% of Black families nationally reported their kids getting free meals during the school day, and the number of EBT card users was slightly lower, at 14%, but the number of families picking up free meals plummeted to 2%.

The summer meal program is their flagship program, giving out between 5,000 and 6,000 meals per day. And there’s also the after-school meal program, which has been running for 14 years. And weekend meal boxes are given out on Fridays and going into holiday breaks.

Over the last few years, Connecting Kids to Meals has given out hundreds of thousands of free meals every year. In the 2021-2022 cycle, they served 675,403 meals across 151 summer sites and 80 after-school sites.

“This work is critically necessary,” Huntley says. In the community they serve, the largest school district has high rates of students who receive free and reduced-price meals.

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“When we look at all of these things, our role is critically important in our community to make sure that, with all the stressors, all the things that kids have to deal with these days,” Huntley says, “finding and getting access to a healthy meal should not and cannot be something that they have that is added to their plate — no pun intended.”

Connecting Kids to Meals is a sponsor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning they get a certain amount of federal funding and meet specified requirements that ensure the meals are healthy. To fill the funding gap, Huntley writes grants and asks for other contributions.

In 2023, Connecting Kids to Meals currently works with 146 summer sites and is adding more. Huntley describes the process as a “hodgepodge” — sites operate at different times during the day, and for different durations during the summer. 

But each location has the same monthly menu.

The kitchen coordinator and operations manager work together to come up with fun meals that meet the nutrition requirements. The ideas come from various places, like trade shows, other programs, and No Kid Hungry — but also from surveys the kids fill out. It’s important to get their feedback to know which meals they liked and didn’t like so Connecting Kids to Meals can make adjustments.

“We want it to be kid-friendly and things that kids will eat,” Huntley says, while still being nutritious.

And what consistently comes in as the top pick? “Every year,” Huntley says, “it’s walking tacos.” 

The Amazon of Food Distribution

Connecting Kids to Meals is now back in growth mode, Huntley says. They’ve purchased additional vehicles for the fleet, along with a new box truck, and are studying the feasibility of expanding.

“I really felt like Connecting Kids to Meals could be like Amazon,” she says. “We could be the food distribution center for Northwest Ohio for kids’ meals.”

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However, she wants to be careful and intentional about growth. While some urge the organization to spread statewide, Huntley doesn’t want to “duplicate efforts” — or step on the toes of other organizations they have relationships with.

Plus, there’s enough work for them to do in Northwest Ohio. Huntley wants to continue impacting the lives of kids and families in the area and do more in their radius.

“I tell my staff every day, ‘All I ask of you is not perfection, what I ask of you is to do your best every day,” Huntley says, “‘and then for us to come back the next day, and to do our best each and every day thereafter.’”

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Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...