Free summer meals for kids in low-income communities
During the summer months when subsidized school lunches and exercise opportunities are less accessible to kids in low-income neighborhoods, the federal government – through the U.S. Department of Agriculture – provides free healthy lunches, snacks and activities at various locations throughout Sacramento County.
The program is open to all children 18 and under. No paperwork or enrollment is required, and no income qualification must be met. Any child can simply come to one of the designated sites during food service times to get a free lunch or snack.
In the last two years, however, more than 80 percent (2 million) of California students who ate subsidized (free or reduced-cost) lunches during the school year were not eating those meals in the summer, City Councilman Jay Schenirer said.
Schenirer said he was contacted in April by Kate Karpilow – executive director for the California Center for Research on Women and Familes, who currently runs the California Summer Meal Program Coalition – to discuss the need to increase food program sites and sponsors throughout Sacramento neighborhoods.
“The challenge this year was there was not enough sites to deliver the food for kids,” Schenirer said. “Summer school money for school districts has been cut drastically. There are fewer summer school sites and fewer sites that were doing summer food programs.”
The Summer Meal Program Coalition, Karpilow said, is a statewide effort to work with with local community leaders to see what can be done to increase the number of sponsors and sites that provide subsidized summer meals to children in low-income neighborhoods.
Schenirer and the CSMPC selected the Oak Park neighborhood as their starting point in the effort. In this neighborhood, Schenirer said, a lot of people qualify for the program.
“I certainly understand the need,” he said. “It’s kind of a crime when there is food available for the young people who need it and we didn’t have the outlets to make sure they have access.”
Despite budget cuts right and left, Karpilow said, they pulled together and got word out to the residents of Oak Park about the services available as far as summer food programs in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Brochures and fliers were created that listed information about the summer food program, site locations, food service dates and times and ways to get involved.
While it was just a simple piece of paper, she said, they were sent out to organizations and people throughout the Oak Park community – including churches, libraries and even to Starbucks. She said that in the past, the outreach component of the program had fallen short.
Through their efforts they were able to get a couple additional outlets, including three churches in Oak Park, for this summer, Schenirer said.
“What we are on the road to do,” Karpilow said, “is raise awareness and follow up to ensure kids in the community have nutrition and activities so they can keep busy during the long summer months.”
The Shiloh Arms Apartment Complex and the Oak Park Community Center are two current summer food program sites in the Oak Park area.
The Shiloh Arms Apartment Complex summer food program is lead by Resident Service Coordinator James Alston from Elk Grove, who the children refer to simply as “Mr. James.”
Alston said he has been working at the site for the last 14 years and has been serving food there for the last eight.
“There was a need,” Alston said. “In the summer time in this community, if kids are hungry, then they can have lunch. The kids get the opportunity to know that at certain times they can get food and some nutrients. A lot of times parents are working or busy – people have different times when they can feed the kids.”
To begin serving food, Alston had to go to training to learn the rules and regulations for the program. This went over the requirements for putting up the food program banners and posters and learning the schedule and rules regarding who they can serve.
One requirement for summer food program sites is to put up a big banner outside that is visible to the public so kids in the neighborhood know food is available, Alston explained.
The number of kids who visit the food program site, Alston said, varies anywhere from 16 to 25. That number has gone down from last year’s average of 25 to 30 kids, which Alston attributed to them going to summer schools.
The kids typically range in ages between 6 and 13, though he serves anyone between the ages of 5 and 18. Children under 5 must be accompanied by an adult.
Many of the children that he serves live in the Shiloh Arms apartment complex and walk over on their own to get their lunches or snacks. About 80 percent of the children, he said, are regulars whom he sees often. The rest are kids from around the community.
Just about a mile and a half away from the Shiloh Arms Apartment Complex, the Oak Park Community Center also serves as a free summer food program site in addition to providing recreational activities for $10 per week.
DeDee Mullins-Cornelius, program supervisor at the community center since 1993, said the program has been going on since before she was there.
Known as “Kids Kamp,” the community center provides activities such as billiards, arts and crafts, movies, computers and various field trips.
As a free summer food site, the 60 to 70 registered children, as well as neighborhood kids and teens, are able to get their free lunch and snack during the designated serving times, noon to 1 p.m. for lunch and 3 – 3:30 p.m. for snacks.
The Kids Kamp and food program is led by four trained recreational aides and anywhere from one to five volunteers from around the neighborhood.
Shamea Robinson, 24, has been a recreational aide for two years and has received training to operate the food program site.
All the foods, Robinson said, are packaged foods with a shelf life. Cheese, cookies, apple sauce, peanut butter and jelly, beef jerky, tuna, juice and milk are some of the various items provided in the meals. The meals are USDA federally funded and are shipped every one or two weeks, Mullins-Cornelius said.
After the food is passed out, the kids eat together out on the grass. As part of the regulations, Robinson said, no one is allowed to take the food to eat elsewhere.
The local project within Sacramento communities is funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
Account Clerk Candace Sinetos supervises and coordinates the program for the city. Anybody who wants to have the program at their location must apply with the city of Sacramento, she said.
To be approved, Sinetos said, the location’s neighborhood elementary school must have 50 percent or more low-income students.
Sites provide their own volunteers and staff, and upon the approval of the application, they each need to complete training on the rules and regulations of the program before food can be delivered to the site.
Most program sites are located at churches and apartment complexes as well as various community centers.
Sinetos said that there are currently about 30 sites participating in the summer food program. However, during July, there were 63 sites all over Sacramento County spanning as far as West Sacramento, Rancho Cordova and Antelope.
Sinetos estimated approximately 3,000 kids visit food program sites each day. Each site around the city of Sacramento sees anywhere from five to 150 kids depending on the site’s location and how big the need is in that neighborhood.
Some neighborhoods have greater need than others, Sinetos said. Particulary the Arden, South Sacramento and Elk Grove areas where there are not as many food program sites available. The greatest need, she said, is in the north Sacramento and Del Paso area – where most sites are currently located.
“It brings food to a lot of kids not in school,” Sinetos said. “And (the sites) put on recreation activities and give them something to do so they’re not home alone or don’t have anywhere to go.”
Children from the Oak Park Community Center shared their thoughts on the program:
Princeton Bush, 9, has been going to the Oak Park Community Center for two years. His favorite snacks there are cheese, crackers and tuna. He said he likes to play games like pool, go on the computer or go to the gym and play basketball.
Larry Junior Devont, 7, said he has been going to the camp all summer.
“(I’ve gone here) maybe 20 times,” Larry said. “We play at the park and in the game room. My grandma drops me off and I go play. We eat some juice, cookies and milk.” Larry’s favorites foods, he said, are vegetables like carrots and cucumbers, chicken, rice, strawberries and candy.
Aaliyah Brown, 11, has been going to the Oak Park Community Center for two weeks, and Carisa, 10, has gone to the camp for a year.
“I come here every day” Aaliyah said. “I like it a lot. I play with all my friends. We play sports like flag football. They feed us lunch and then a snack. The lunch is more of a meal – you get a whole lunch bag of food.”
“I like this place,” Carisa said. “I like it like my old school. The first time I went here I was shy, but I made a lot of friends.” Carisa said her favorite foods from the summer meal program are sunflower seeds and fruit such as peaches and pineapples.
Denise Harton Brazier, 10, has been going to the Oak Park Community Center program for three or four years.
“This camp is the best,” she said. “It’s the best camp I’ve ever been to. It’s a lot of fun. Lunch is really healthy – you usually get a cheese stick, four crackers, beef jerky, and some peanut butter and jelly on bread, and you always get small juices.”
The Summer Food program started June 20 and runs through Aug. 19. Participating sites may open for all three months or may choose to run for any span of time within the time frame depending on the site’s availability and the neighborhood’s needs.