Lunchtime in Elgin, summer parks-style
By Mike Danahey email@example.com June 26, 2012 7:36PM
Children stand in line to recieve meals provided for them by a summer lunch program for the needy funded by a grant from NRPA and Walmart at Cornerstone Park in Elgin on June 26, 2012. | Katherine Peters~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 28, 2012 6:21AM
ELGIN — As James O’Connor of the National Recreation and Park Association sees it, free lunch programs such as the one conducted through Elgin’s Parks are Recreation Department are about much more than meals.
As it stands, according to Parks and Recreation Director Randy Reopelle, at least 400 children per day are being fed a midday meal through the city’s program, which is in its fourth year.
The local effort began in response to the recession, Reopelle said, and got off the ground with the help of the Salvation Army and others who were able to put the first program together in a matter of weeks.
This year’s program began almost immediately after Elgin schools let out for the summer and runs through Aug. 17, five days before students return to class for the new term.
It has grown to 10 sites in needy neighborhoods, four of which also have five-hour drop-in playground programming weekdays. Next summer, the department would like to expand the lunch program to at least one more site, the grounds near the old observatory on the near-east side, and is working with the Kiwanis Club and other local groups to build a picnic shelter for it.
Parks and Rec works with five area churches, Buena Vista (apartments) Management and the Salvation Army on the current project.
O’Connor was in Elgin on Tuesday from the Washington, D.C., area “to get a picture to go along with the data,” he said.
That data suggests that only one in seven of the low-income students who depended on the National School Lunch Program during the regular 2010-11 school year received summer meals in July 2011, according to a report released this month by the Food Research and Action Center.
To address the issue, this year, the Walmart Foundation granted $1.5 million to the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), which divvied out the funding to 28 park and recreation agencies across the nation, including $47,000 to help Elgin. Walmart’s Summer Giving Campaign is a $20 million initiative aimed at filling gaps created when schools close for the summer, particularly in nutrition, learning and employment services.
O’Connor said the NRPA has been involved in summer food programs since the U.S. Department of Agriculture started them in the 1970s. With the summer effort and after-school efforts, NRPA nutrition programs have fed 180,000 children about 16 million meals over the last two years, he noted.
In Elgin, the Northern Illinois Food Bank coordinates obtaining the meals. According to the group’s website, “over the last year, NIFB has seen between a 35 percent and a 50 percent surge in demand throughout the 13 counties it serves,” and “61,600 different people receive assistance in any given week.”
Locally, the NIFB also works with the Boys & Girls Club of Elgin, Abbott Middle School with the Elgin Police Department, Taylor YMCA, Elgin YWCA, and a summer lunch program conducted in Lords Park Pavilion, NIFB’s Amy Dyer said.
Dyer explained that meals are prepared by Open Kitchens in Chicago, sent to NIFB in Geneva, then driven to the Elgin spots, Dyer said.
What might be found in one of the cardboard boxes must meet USDA requirements of a carton of milk, two ounces of meat or other protein source, a serving of whole grain, and three-quarter cup of fruit or vegetable.
The NIFB is reimbursed by the USDA for lunches at $3.33 per meal served. But the reimbursement only goes by lunches taken, and children can only take one lunch each.
Thus, an inventory checklist is maintained at each site. Those lists also allow the NIFB to estimate how many meals should be delivered to each place each day — an imprecise process, since the sites are open ones.
The meals are cycled so the same combination is not served more than once every two weeks.
What to feed them
While kids can be picky eaters as it is, those involved with the lunch program also noted that feeding youths from underprivileged homes has its own set of challenges.
O’Connor noted that in Indianapolis, quite a few participants had never seen a fresh peach before getting a chance to eat one at an NRPA-sponsored summer lunch offering in that city.
Laura Zimmerman of Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin noted that the city’s program is competing with taste buds frequently acclimated to junk food, including a popular snack right now of hot Cheetos, hot sauce and sour cream mixed in a zip-locked plastic bag.
To combat that, the Elgin lunch program is working to open youths to a variety of foods by showing ways they can be made palatable such as blending them in smoothies; is planning to work with the University of Illinois Extension on a program showing how good foods can help children be faster, stronger and more alert in class; and is encouraging participants to share or swap foods they might not like.
There are “parental” tricks, too. Zimmerman mentioned telling kids that hummus is a dip and — since they are familiar with and like dip — kids have tried hummus and liked it.
With the settings being parks, the hope is to keep kids active in a relatively safe environment, Reopelle said.
To that end, Tuesday at Cornerstone Park behind the Elgin Mall on the west side, Trevon Martin, 12, sat down to a meal of strawberries, broccoli, a turkey and cheese sandwich, salad and milk, then played with buddy Parker Tavares, 9, and Parker’s sister, Lily, 7, whose mother Amy was doling out box lunches.
A volunteer from Harvest Bible, Amy Tavares said that from 11:30 until noon she had passed out lunches to 63 children, and she was expecting to give away more when after summer school buses let out in the neighborhood.
Her own kids’ and their friends collective favorite for the day: strawberries.