LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Lunch was serious business for the Lakewood Ranch Kiwanis Club when they heard about areas in Manatee County that are "food deserts" from Jon Thaxton, director of community investments for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
Contrary to what is commonly thought, the profile of the typical homeless person in Manatee and Sarasota
counties is a woman age 25 to 35, which means her children are likely to be homeless as well, according to the foundation's figures.
"That's why the foundation decided this is a huge issue, and it would concentrate on homeless families with school-age children, particularly with over 100 school-age homeless children a year in Sarasota, and way over that in Manatee," Thaxton said.
There are more than 2,300 homeless children in Manatee County in any given year, said Manatee County School Board Vice Chair Julie Aranibar, who added that she had additional concerns about processed foods and sugars served in school lunches.
"One of the things I've found is the profound impact nutrition has on a child's success. We have areas in our community where the only food available is high in fat and high in salt. Many of our people now are just looking to get calories into our children," said Thaxton, who heads up the foundation's Feeding Hungry Families initiative.
This hunger and nutrition program takes into account today's set of circumstances in the country that is unique in history, where the poorest individuals in the population are suffering obesity.
"The wealthiest people are more likely to be slim and trim, and the healthiest," Thaxton said. "This initiative is in its data gathering and research section."
Trying to put certain standards of nutrition into the package with financial aid programs was suggested by Lakewood Ranch Kiwanis host Joseph Zarlenga, who hoped to help improve the situation.
In the fall Manatee County schools stopped selling power drinks on campus, said Aranibar. "People fill their carts with soda. People use it and they like it and they choose soda over the other healthier options. What do you do now?"
After the meeting, Aranibar added that residents in Manatee County live in the back yard of agriculture.
"I would love to see a partnership with our local agriculture and the schools getting more involved. In fact, we need it at every age, all the way through. I really would like to work on going back to the nonprofit food services. Some of the high schools are going back to having salad bars and having wraps," Aranibar said. "Chain restaurants, when you buy salads, are pre-done and treated. Restaurants do it because it doesn't go bad. Nobody has to do the hand washing of vegetables.
"We live surrounded by the best agriculture. Why aren't our farmers feeding our own kids?" she asked.
Dee Graham, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7027, or tweet @DeeGrahamBH.