Closing the nutrition gap

KINGFIELD — For a half-dozen neighborhood children, the wading pool at Martin Luther King Park offered some welcome relief from an early July heat wave.

But several families visiting the park on a hot and humid Tuesday afternoon were there for more than a chance to cool off.

Martin Luther King Park is one of 115 sites in Minneapolis that offers a free summer lunch to children and teenagers under 18 years old.

The meal is meant to fill the summer nutrition gap, when many children no longer have access to school lunch programs. Summer lunch locations are determined based on area poverty rates, but all children and teens are eligible for a meal regardless of income.

When the doors to the park’s recreation center opened at noon, a steady trickle of children came by to grab a free lunch, often accompanied by their parents.

Angie Wycoff, who ran a summer program for children at the center, said the number of children and teenagers who show up for lunch varied from day to day, but often the few lunch tables in the park’s recreation center were filled. A typical menu includes a cold cut sandwich, fruit or vegetable, juice and milk.

For some neighborhood parents, like Amanda Granse, the lunch program was less a necessity than a convenience. Granse didn’t have to pack a lunch for her two children on the days she dropped them off at the recreation center’s summer youth program. “I think there’s a lot of kids down here who need it more than my kids,” she said.

Regardless, Elena, 8, and Addie, 6, seemed to be enjoying their meals. In between sips of juice, Addie managed to give a one-word review.

“Yummy,” she said.

Still, other parents relied on the program to supplement small food budgets.

Janine VanHeel said she brought her 7-year-old son, Masin, to the recreation center “mostly every day” for lunch. It was an easy way for VanHeel to hold down household expenses over the summer, while her three children were out of school.

“I’ve got three preteen boys who eat me out of house and home,” VanHeel said.

She estimated a weekly grocery bill of at least $50, just to feed them lunch.

“It’s an excellent program for low-income families,” she said.

The Summer Food Service Program was introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the late 1960s as a way to extend the benefits of school lunch and breakfast programs into the summer months.

Today, it is offered in any area where at least 50 percent of children come from families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty rate. Those children also are eligible for free or reduced-cost school meals during the school year.

Nearly 1.1 million meals were served through the summer lunch program across the state in 2006, the USDA reported. That year, about 25,000 Minnesota children and teenagers visited a summer lunch site each day, on
average.

In Minneapolis, the program is sponsored by Minneapolis Public Schools. Meals are prepared at the district’s central kitchen facility at 812 Plymouth Ave. N. and then distributed around the city.

Nicole Barron, district administrator of the summer lunch program, said there was a definite need for the program in most parts of the city.

“In our schools, 68 percent of our kids last year were eligible for free and reduced[-price] meals,” Barron said.

Free meals are available a number of schools, city parks and summer recreation programs. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks are available, but no site can offer more than two meals a day.

At Blaisdell YMCA in Lyndale, Youth Development Director Jessica McDonald said she served about 30–40 meals every day, mostly to youth enrolled in the YMCA’s Summer Power program. Anyone under 18 years old who shows up and wants a meal can have one, though, McDonald added.

She said the free lunch makes Summer Power a more affordable option for low-income families. About three-quarters the children enrolled in the program already get financial assistance to attend, she added.

“The kids who are in my program are the kids who really need it,” she said.

In mid-July, McDonald was expecting the need for summer lunches to grow through the summer.

“Next week, summer school is over, so I’m expecting that number to jump,” she said.

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com or 436-4391.