With school out, programs fill summer lunch void

Julie Lewis | The Daily Star Clockwise, from left, Brandon Davis, 6; Amelia Wilcox, 2; Amy Davis, Ashleigh Davis, 9; and Bailey Wilcox, 10; eat lunch together during the Lunch in the Park program Wednesday. Amy Davis is the mother of Brandon and Ashleigh and daycare provider for Amelia and Bailey.

Thousands of students across the country have access to free breakfast and lunch through programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but for many, those cafeteria-prepared meals may be their only source of food for the entire day.

The problem is exacerbated in the summertime, when reliable meals are no longer available at school. To fill the gap, many local schools and community organizations have stepped up to fill the gap.

Funding is available through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program and administered through the New York state Department of Education. Approximately 400,000 students are served at nearly 3,000 sites statewide, according to state estimates.

An estimated 30% of New York students who rely on free or reduced-price school lunches continue to receive free meals through summer programs, according to Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit organization working to end hunger and poverty.

Charlotte Valley and Sidney Central schools were among 17 New York schools to receive additional funding through Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, which awarded up to $5,000 to each district to help expand meal sites and improve programs to serve more families during the summer months.

“Because the funding comes from the state department of education, it’s set up perfectly for schools,” said Christy Houck, associate executive director of Catholic Charities of Delaware, Otsego, and Schoharie Counties. “But schools are not always able to offer it, so that’s where we come in.”

The organization will again host Lunches in the Park weekdays from noon to 1 p.m. through Aug. 23 at Neahwa Park.

The First United Presbyterian “Red Door” Church coordinated volunteers to prepare and serve the meals, which include cold sandwiches, fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and yogurt, Houck said, and Catholic Charities partnered with the United Way of Delaware and Otsego Counties to secure a grant to provide food for adults who accompany children to the program.

“It’s a great way to support a nice social environment,” Houck said.

By all appearances, the program is a summer camp, providing summer fun activities that many attendees may not otherwise have access to.

The program’s open setting signals that all are welcome to the table — meals are served to everyone free of charge, no questions asked — in a manner organizers said they hope will mitigate any feelings of shame or embarrassment that may deter children and families from attending. 

Different enrichment activities, crafts and games are available to attendees throughout the week, Houck said.

“We want to offer some things that people may need and some things that are enjoyable,” she said.

Representatives from Cornell Cooperative Extension make smoothies and facilitate group games on Fridays, and a librarian from Huntington Memorial Library visits once a week for a read-aloud session. Free books are available for children and families to read in the park or take home, and a bike helmet giveaway will be held at the beginning of August.

Some families make plans to meet up at the park and treat the program like a picnic, and volunteers usually serve a wave of hungry, swimsuit-clad children after swim lessons finish for the afternoon, Houck said.

“The Oneonta community has backed it every year we’ve done it,” she said.

The city donates the use of a pavilion throughout the summer, and the Oneonta City School District partnered with Opportunities for Otsego to provide round-trip transportation services from Lantern Hill, Mountainview and Oneida Village mobile home parks. 

For more information about the Oneonta program, contact Catholic Charities at 607-432-0061.

In addition to the Neahwa Park program, students in Otsego County may eat for free at Milford, Morris and Unatego schools, which also host meal sites. Jefferson Central School is the only Schoharie County district to administer the program, but students are encouraged to attend sites at schools in neighboring counties, including Delaware Academy, Deposit, South Kortright, Stamford and Walton.

Summer meals are available through each of the eight school districts in Chenango County, but students at Afton Central School additionally benefit from a community partnership program.

Victoria Gregory, the agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Afton Central School, also coordinates the Afton School Pantry.

The pantry is open during breakfast from 7:15 to 9 a.m. Mondays. Families can receive a pre-packaged box of donated food by filling out simple paperwork, Gregory said; no identification or further proof is required.

The program was awarded $3,000 through Learning to Serve, a grant program of the national FFA organization, and is sponsored by the Afton Inter-Church Council, which coordinates with the Food Bank of Central New York to operate the pantry during the school year, Gregory said.

Afton is a “high-poverty area,” according to Gregory.

For the first time this year, the district was reimbursed the cost of breakfast and lunch for each student through a USDA program for low-income schools, she said.

The pantry opened its doors three years ago and serves an estimated 30 families, Gregory said, speculating that more would come if transportation or work schedules were not an issue.

A crew of 10 to 20 volunteers — many of which are students — operate the pantry throughout the year, Gregory said.

Gregory said she uses the program as a lesson in service, business and nutrition. Students practice reading labels and understanding food groups, and lettuce grown in a student greenhouse was served to families last week.

Students are also responsible for placing orders, unloading the delivery truck, packaging the food in small- and large-family boxes and distributing them, she said.

“There’s a lot of great lessons involved and it gives back to the community,” Gregory said. “It’s been a great project all the way around.”

To locate the closest summer meal program site, call 211, text “Food” or “Comida” to 877-877 or visit fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks for an interactive map. 

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.