Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Summer meals offer nutrition for kids and teens

Children eat lunch outside the McKinley Library
On a sunny June afternoon, children come running down the sidewalk behind McKinley Library on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Each kid walks away with a boxed meal from the Lunch Bus, including nutritious food like raisins, whole-grain Goldfish crackers, milk, and applesauce. Once the school year is out, these meals fulfill a crucial need, feeding children who count on free and reduced-price lunches at school.

Summer can be a challenging time for low-income families who struggle to afford food and childcare. The Summer Food Service Program ensures that children still have access to nourishing meals. Since 1968, the USDA has funded the Summer Food Service Program with a grant to state agencies, who reimburse community organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository to deliver the meals where they are needed most. This summer, the Food Depository expects to serve more than 600,000 meals at more than 300 sites.

Lunch Buses travel throughout the city and south suburbs all summer, transporting meals to easily accessible neighborhood sites every weekday. Find the full Lunch Bus route here. Since these meals are only available to children and teens 18 and under, interns and volunteers also help adults find food pantries by distributing informational flyers.

Joe has volunteered as a Lunch Bus driver for the past three years.  His reason for volunteering is simple: “It makes you feel good.” At the McKinley Library, he works with Christian, a Food Depository AmeriCorps intern, to distribute more than 75 meals in 20 minutes. Children eat their lunches in a small park beside the library, while parents enjoy an opportunity for outdoor time with their kids.

Christian and Joe with the Lunch Bus

Christian is spending his second summer as an intern on the Lunch Bus. “Seeing the kids’ faces every day is my favorite part,” he says. “It’s really humbling.” Christian answers parents’ questions about the program in English and Spanish and tracks the number of meals served at each site.

From the library, the Lunch Bus proceeds to St. Pancratius church in Brighton Park. After receiving their lunches, children line up to receive free age-appropriate books from Bernie’s Book Bank.  By distributing books alongside the Lunch Bus, Bernie’s Book Bank supports literacy for children in need. Children express their excitement and gratitude for both the books and the meals.

Although the Lunch Bus serves thousands of meals, an unmet need remains: only 14 percent of children who receive free and reduced-price meals during the school year utilize summer meals. Families in need of summer meals can find their nearest site by texting FOODIL to 877877, calling 800-359-2163, or visiting to locate meal sites.