Pocatello – On a recent sunny afternoon, the kids were pouring out of buggies, rolling on skateboards, going around on their bikes – all headed for a free lunch picnic in Pocatello’s Raymond Park.
The Summer Food Service Program, as these federally funded and state-run free meals are called, is available in parks and schools across the country and ensures that children and teens as young as 18 have food when school isn’t in session.
Last summer in Idaho, more than 4.1 million meals and snacks were served at more than 250 locations, according to the state’s Department of Education. In July 2021, an average of 23,940 children were served meals daily (including breakfast, lunch or dinner, depending on what was served).
During the school year, the districts support students by providing support Breakfast and lunch if necessary. Some schools also have indoor food pantries and 173 schools statewide participate in The Backpack Program at Idaho FoodbankThis ensures that children have food during the weekend.
When schools close for the summer, these core programs are also shut down. This is where park lunches come in.
“This program makes schools a central hub for communities while ensuring children have nutritious meals throughout the summer and are healthy, happy, and ready to go back to school for learning in the fall,” Maggie Reynolds, SDE Public Information Specialist wrote in an email. “Comments on the program have been positive, particularly as it has helped food-insecure families get healthy meals throughout the uncertainty of the pandemic.”
While meals are free for anyone 18 or younger, they are only served in neighborhoods where 50 percent or more of kids and teens qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to Jonathan Bowles, director of commercial operations at Pocatello/Chubbuck. District 25. In SD25, an average of 699 students per month took food backpacks on the weekends in the 2021-2022 school year—a number that illustrates the level of food insecurity in the community. In the four weeks since the summer food program began, the district has already served 38,891 meals.
“It is a wonderful program to help our families with their basic needs,” said Dr. Douglas Howell, School Principal for Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25. “It’s also a good opportunity to socialize.”
Last Thursday, parents William Braden and Rebecca Bowcott stood in the lunch line in Raymond Park with their two-year-old son, Ryder. They often take the Ryder to the park for lunch and enjoy the “family vibes”.
“It’s good that they help people for free,” Braden said.
Behind them, Lindsay Humphries was applying sunscreen to a group of 5- and 9-year-olds from Adventures in Daycare. She said she takes the kids to a different local park every day.
“It’s a great programme,” she said. “For some kids, you don’t know—it might be their only meal today. And all the kids play together.”
Food service worker Linda Nelson said parents highly appreciate the program, noting that children with working parents are able to go down to the park on their own to eat.
The program is also a boon for school district employees who want to work and earn more money in the summer, including bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Nelson, who works in the cafeteria at Gate City Elementary during the school year, is one of them.
Across town in Alameda Park—where more than 400 people are served each day—Cherry Thornley and her three children, Talisa (9), Ashlyn (7), and Matthew (4) sprawled out on the lawn with lunches laid out in front of them.
The best part of the summer lunch program?“When you’re done eating, you can play,” Talisa said.
Her brother Matthew had already started, running around the group and clicking heads in a duck-goose game.
“It is a nice. “We get time outside together,” Sherry said, but added that she wished the food was fresh.
The Summer Meals Program was established by the federal government in 1968 and its trial began in 1969. Schools, local government agencies, camps, and community organizations are welcome to administer or sponsor the Summer Meals Program.
For more information, visit Summer Food Service Program Website. To find free summer meal locations located near you, check out USDA Meals for Kids Site Finder.
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