Free summer lunch programs help feed struggling families
By Chris Levister –
Eight year-old Jesse and his two sisters Mikala and Sasha know what it’s like to be hungry. The three Riverside children had nacho cheese Doritos for breakfast. It isn’t just another day at the park these kids have come ready to play and ready to eat.
“I’m so hungry,” says six-year-old Sasha.
Two hours before lunchtime the children are standing in the hot sun outside this Riverside Parks and Recreation campsite jockeying for what will be their best meal of the day.
The Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) serves about 34,000 kids a fresh, healthy, nutritious meal during the regular school year. 61 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced price. When school ended so did those school breakfast and lunch programs leaving thousands of children wondering where their next meal will come from.
That is where the RUSD's summer barbeques come in.
Riverside Recreation supervisor Jerry Hurley runs one of two highly successful lunch programs. Hurley estimates the programs will to dish up more than 200,000 meals throughout the summer. “The need is so great. To see the desperation on these kid’s faces is heartbreaking,” explains Hurley. “Five years ago we were serving approximately 19,500 meals, then it spiked up to 22 thousand. He says this year the parks program is on track to serve more than 90,000 meals.
“For many of these kids unfortunately it’s their best and often only meal of the day.”
Today’s lunch is a choice of hamburgers, chicken patties, hot dogs, hot links or ribs, barbecued on site, along with fruit, a vegetable, chips and milk from coolers full of ice. At this site, in less than an hour Hurley’s staff has served more than 100 meals.
Kids will also get complimentary afternoon snacks. That could offer a welcome break for parents who depended on free summer school meals in districts that canceled classes because of budget cuts. It’s also good news for kids who appreciate the benefits of a balanced meal.
“I got a hot dog. I feel better when I eat,” 7-year-old Sasha said.
“She’s a cry baby when she gets hungry,” added Jesse. “That happens a lot.”
The city’s Parks and Recreation Community Services Department’s summer food program operates a 12 week program at 10 sites in low income neighborhoods. That’s in addition to the 14 FEEDS (Food for every Child to Eat during Summer) sites operated by (RUSD) Nutrition Services.
The programs target kids under age 18. But no one is turned away, said Hurley.
“No applications. You don’t have to register to get a free meal – kids just have to show up. We don’t check ID, immigration status or need eligibility,” said Hurley.
Hurley said the city tries to make the sites as easy to access as possible to make sure kids can have fun and enjoy a healthy meal.
“Our satisfaction at the staff level and at the parks and community centers comes from seeing the smiles on the young people faces. We’re truly touching lives.”
The $440,000 Summer Food Service Program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The camps and park sites provide instruction and crafts accompanied by an occasional visit from face painters, magicians and strolling mimes.
“The summer barbeques at Riverside parks are a godsend,” says Malinda Perry-Lees of Riverside. Perry-Lees is a single parent who holds three part-time jobs including a hotel housekeeping job in Los Angeles.
“Each day when I drop my kids off at this park I cry a little. I anguish a lot, but I know they will get at least one good meal.”
Rodney Taylor, director of nutrition services in Riverside County since 2002, says once the barbeques started in 2010, RUSD served an average of over 3,000 meals per day. He is now dedicated to expanding the program even more—as he said, “our goal is to serve everyone, students, their parents, no one will be turned away,” said Taylor.
According to Taylor, who has appeared prominently in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program targeting childhood obesity, efforts are being made to reach an even greater number of students with automatic phone dialers that schools will utilize to reach all district students as well as the distribution of fliers both by hand and posted on the marquees of schools. The federal government also is subsidizing free lunches for children in other Inland communities and trying to serve more across the nation as budget cuts reduce summer school, where low-income children were typically fed.
Riverside County has the third highest unemployment rate in the country, with no signs of improving. Taylor and Hurley say Riverside is becoming less affluent and more and more children need to be fed.
They say boldly, “Hunger doesn't take a summer vacation and neither will we."
For more information: Riverside Unified School District Nutrition Services at 951-352-6740 or www.rusd.k12.ca.us/ourdistrict/nutritionservices or www.riverside.ca.gov
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