School's out and summer break is here, but some for some kids that means a break from balanced meals.
Many Illinois communities offer a summer lunch program to help balance the scales of food insecurity.
Since 1946, the federal government - through the Department of Agriculture - has been providing free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch to school children across the country.
Part of the school breakfast program and the national school lunch program extends over the summer as the summer food service program.
This program offers a free lunch to kids 18 and under at open sites in the community.
On average, more than 1 in 5 kids in Illinois struggle with hunger, but only 1 in 9 kids that are eligible actually utilize the summer lunch program.
“There’s one hundred kids I know today are eating.”
Carbondale elementary school food service director Sherri Wyatt runs the summer lunch program in Carbondale.
The open site is at Carbondale Middle School this summer; the closed site is at the Boys and Girls Club for club members only.
“I know that it’s a very big need and I know that there’s a lot of kids that need to eat over the summer so I’m hoping that maybe we can make that work and maybe get the kids here.”
Wyatt says even if more kids show up than they prepared food for, her and the staff will make more food to ensure no one leaves hungry.
“I know there’s a lot of kids that stress when school’s out, I know that, I worked for a school district for 15 years and one of the most stressful times of the year is when summer’s approaching because the kids don’t know how they’re going to get food all summer.”
Director of operations for the Boys and Girls Club Brittany Swims says they run an after school program at Carbondale Middle School and next door at Lewis School during the school year.
During the summer they offer a morning program at both schools for the month of June. The kids have breakfast, then attend multiple activities until it’s time for lunch.
“We’re already here during the school year and we wanted to continue that, foster that relationship, so we decided that a summer program at the sites would be beneficial for our youth.”
Parent Kurt Ford has kids in both programs and feels it’s a benefit to them and also himself.
“It’s definitely a pleasure just knowing that I have that ease of mind that when they come here, they’re getting their needs meet with education, with having some productive life skills they’ll get from the club and also to get a good nice meal from this program.”
Ford says without the JUMP and PRIDE programs, his family’s summer would be a little different.
“As any parent I would have to just you know struggle with finding someone to watch the kids, making sure that everything is taken care of and doing all that so that’s the benefit of having the program here is that’s just not a worry I have to have, but as any parent I would have done the best that I could to make sure they have everything they needed if this program wasn’t here.”
Swims says as an added bonus, keeping the programs at the school during summer also helps student with transitioning to a new school building.
“It also allows the incoming grades to get familiar with the school prior to the school year starting so we have some of the Thomas kids that were in third grade last year, they’re in PRIDE now, so they get to experience Lewis school before the school year starts.”
Ford says he appreciates how the program helps his children explore new foods.
“There’ll be times when they come home and they tried something that I might not necessarily make or that they don’t get all the time at home from the meals that I make and I’ll be like hey we can try something new you know we can try something that you’ve tried here at the program.”
There are a few obstacles the summer lunch program faces, the first is letting people know about the program.
Wyatt says they’re working overtime to let parents know the program is open to everyone.
“We’ve done a lot of social media we’ve sent letters home at the end of the school year with the kids, I’ve sent letters out to some organizations and churches and things like that trying to let everybody know that we are hear and that were needing the kids to come eat.”
The second is transportation. The city of Carbondale is composed of over 11 square miles, which could be difficult for kids in other parts of the city to make it to the Middle School.
“I don’t expect a lot of walkers that far, you know I’m not sure, but babysitters, all those people who have kids maybe that would have transportation, but I would think the kids on the other side of town will have a hard time getting here.”
Wyatt is looking forward to more kids in the community finding out about the program and making it grow.
“Right now, we’re doing 100, I would love to see double that, hopefully we can keep it going and open more sites and make it work for the kids, its important.”
It’s important to Wyatt because she knows it’s not only the summer time this becomes an issue.
“There’s always kids that stress about not having food at home and not being able to eat on a daily basis even when school is in and not just over summer so we feel good about feeding the kids and we feel really good about being able to help them over the summer.”
To find the nearest summer lunch program near you text “FoodIL” to 877877 or visit www.summermealsillinois.org.