YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – In this week’s In-Depth segment, WKBN Community Affairs Director Dee Crawford sits down with Mark Samuel, the CEO of Heart Reach Neighborhood Ministries. They continue the conversation on addressing the issue of barriers to learning for local children.

There are currently 14 public and 19 private and charter schools serving Youngstown’s 9,200 children. About 89% qualify for free and reduced meals, meaning 8,275 children are living in Youngstown receiving free and reduced meals.

Heart Reach is one of the sponsors of a summer food program and also serves weekend meals for children. Other sponsors include area schools. The food program begins on June 5. Meals include breakfast and lunch, along with carry-home meals for the weekends.

“They’re all nutritious meals. So it includes your fruits and vegetables, a grain, milk and then a meat — healthy meat, and that’s with all the meals,” Samuel said. “Innovation Foods out of Twinsburg actually provides meals and trucks them in and then we distribute them.”

Students get nutritious meals during the school year, so this program makes sure those meals continue throughout the summer.

According to Samuel, 100% of the children in the Youngstown area automatically qualify for the program because there is so much poverty in the area.

“With the reduction in SNAP benefits that just recently went into effect, as well as just inflation, that definitely affects our families and creates some extra challenges. Also, just the academics we’re still getting caught up,” Samuel said.

All children need to do is show up to one of the food distribution sites in order to receive their meals. Depending on the site, breakfast is usually served around 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. and lunch is usually around noon.

Children can participate in the program up to 18 years old.

Samuel said they started in 2009 and were sponsoring their own meals in-house at community centers and it grew from there.

“Then, other agencies, churches just said, ‘Hey, we would like to feed kids, too.’ And they had programs similar to ours where we’re just doing enrichment, academic enrichment and just learning activities during summertime. They said, ‘We’d like to have meals as part of our programming as well,'” Samuel said.

On the weekends “shelf-stable meals” are provided to it can be eaten cold. Just like the onsite meals, they include grain, meat, fruit, vegetables and shelf-stable milk.

Physical activity and getting kids to exercise are also part of the plan.

“There’s been some documentation of kids that gain weight over the summertime because they are not getting the activities, and they are not eating healthy,” Samuel said.

The program runs until August 18.

Heart Reach Neighborhood Ministries has three community centers they operate: At the Kerwin Homes in Campbell, Rockford Village on the East Side of Youngstown and Redondo Community Center on the North Side.

“If someone would like to participate or have their children participate in any of those programs, they can call 330-744-2000, and we’ll get them set up and help you find out which center is the closest and get them involved. There’s after-school or there’s summer programming for children. We have teen job training programs, as well as a variety of family assistance activities,” Samuel said.