With the arrival of summer break, Howard County school system officials are gearing up for the system’s free weekday lunch program and adding a mobile distribution location in Columbia.

Brian Ralph, director of food and nutrition services for the school system, said the goal is to give away 60,000 meals over the eight-week program — 10,000 more than last year.

“Our goal is to go even beyond the summer,” Ralph said. “We are looking to [provide free meals] 365 days a year; and not just the 180 [school] days.”

This year’s school sites are Laurel Woods Elementary, Talbott Springs Elementary, Harper’s Choice Middle and Oakland Mills Middle schools.

A new mobile site will be at the East Columbia library. The meals are prepared at the four school sites and taken to the library.

The program starts June 25 and closes Aug. 17. The elementary school sites are open from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and the middle schools and library are open noon to 1:30 p.m.

“The beauty of this program [is that] it’s open to all students,” Ralph said. No child is turned away if they are under age 18. The sites do not ask the children for their names, proof of attending a county public school or home addresses.

During the school year, 22 percent of students in the 56,000-student system receive food through a program for freeand reduced-price meals, or FARM.

“We believe that the number of families who qualify are 5 to 10 percent higher than that [the 22 percent],” said Brian Bassett, a schools spokesman.

“Some of them don’t know that they qualify, some of them don’t know it exists, some don’t know how to sign up and others choose not to based on stigmas.”

For the current school year, about 10,200 students receive free meals and 2,300 pay a reduced rate for meals in the county, according to data from the State Department of Education.

Statewide, 43 percent of all students enrolled in the public school system receive free or reduced-price meals, according to the data.

To qualify to be a summer lunch distribution site, the surrounding area has to have at least 50 percent of students enrolled in the FARM program, Ralph said.

Summer meals are similar to the offerings served during the school year.

The hot lunches, which include fruit, vegetables and milk, are different every day.

The program is an extension of the National School Lunch Program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture covers the cost of every meal served, according to Bassett. There are no costs to the school system.

See LUNCHES, page 6