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COLUMBIA - A new program is offering every child in Columbia a free voucher to buy groceries.

The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri is giving bags of fruits and vegetables to any child that participates in its free summer lunch program. It is also offering children up to two vouchers that can each be used to buy up to $5.00 worth of produce at participating markets in Columbia. There is no registration and the only requirement to participate or receive any lunches, produce, or vouchers is to be under 18 years old.

Both the bags of produce and vouchers will be given out every Wednesday at noon until August 11. They’re available at any of the five locations that currently participate in the "Summer Food 4 Kids" program, which provides free lunches for children in Columbia. The lunches are available from Monday through Friday at the Central Pantry, Indian Hills Park, Bear Creek Park, Memorial Baptist Church, and Calvary Baptist Church.

Stacey Brown, the Children’s Program Coordinator at The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri, said the new program provides both help for families in need and nutritional education for children.

“We’re feeding the kids because school lunches are no longer available and we know that can hit families kind of hard,” Brown said. “But adding these additional items, as far as the produce giveaway and the vouchers, is just a way for us to boost children’s awareness of healthy eating lifestyles."

The voucher program is new, but the effort to educate children about healthy eating has been going on since “A Farm to Table” was created last year. The program consists of interactive classes that teaches children about produce. It also teaches them how to prepare fruits and vegetables. 

“Each week, an instructor spends the lunches with the kids and teaches them about different aspects of farm-to-table living,” Brown said. "Some days, she might be cooking with fresh vegetables with them. Some days she might be planting seeds. Today, she is going to help them with their produce selection when they shop with the vouchers and try things that they’ve never tried before."

The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri will pay each store for the total costs at the end of the program. The food bank received a $20,000 grant from Conagra Brands Foundation’s Hunger-Free Summer Program.

Brown said the voucher program would not be possible without the grant and the continuation of the program is dependent on finding funding for next year.

"This is the first year we’ve been able to do these additional programs,” Brown said. “So we’re pretty lucky to have that at our disposal this year. We’ll have to see what happens next summer."

Heather Asi is a mother of three children and volunteers for the summer lunch program. She said her church, Prairie Grove Baptist Church, has been helping with the summer lunch program for years, but the new voucher program provides a unique education for nutrition. 

“A lot of times with kids, they just get what their parents are giving them,” Asi said. “They don’t get a lot of choices. For them to have some control over what they’re going to pick out and what they’re getting to eat… It’s just a real-life for them to begin to learn about nutrition and what your body needs."

All Hy-Vee, Gerbes, and Moser’s Foods located in Columbia are participating in the program. The Columbia Farmers Market is also accepting the vouchers.

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