Every summer millions of children across the country go without the meals that the federal government provides for them during the school year - the reason a Hispanic church in suburban Denver has taken on the task of meeting this need with a program that has already become a national model.
"A lot of our kids get nutritious breakfasts and lunches during the school year. But during the summer many of the same children go hungry," the Rev. Joseito Velasquez, pastor of the Assembly of God Church in Wheat Ridge, told Efe.
In view of that need, the church decided to offer not only food but also a lineup of other benefits at the Healing Waters Family Center.
"We believe we're not only called upon to satisfy spiritual needs but also physical needs," the pastor said.
A year ago, Velasquez and other leaders of his 90-percent Hispanic congregation took part in an online seminar about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program.
During the seminar it was explained how churches can become SFSP sponsoring sites.
The experience in 2011 was so positive that this year, for the launching of SFSP at Healing Waters, a number of local personalities turned up including the mayor of Wheat Ridge, an assistant coach of the NBA Denver Nuggets and even USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon.
"Those who benefit most from our program are children under 18 because they receive good nutrition at a safe, easy-to-reach location. But apart from food they also receive four hours of free activities every day like sports, handicrafts, art, education and excursions," Velasquez said.
"All these services are totally gratis. So not only the youngsters benefit but their parents do too, because now they have something for their kids to do all summer long that doesn't cost them a cent," he said.
Of the more than 220,000 children in Colorado who during the school year get meals free or at a discount, fewer than 24,000 took advantage of such meals during the summer of 2011.
Nationwide the USDA supervises 15 food programs that provide meals for one out of every four people in the country, half of them children.
Velasquez said his motivation for seeking local and federal aid to serve meals to children of low-income families grew even stronger after discovering in 2011 that, while these children and their parents asked for food, they also sought spiritual guidance and wanted to belong to a friendly community willing to lend a hand to those in need.
"That's why we're working with other agencies providing community aid. In fact we have become a kind of link with those funds. And it all began with the program of summer meals - it's really been a blessing," Velasquez said. EFE