The basketball courts neighboring Lee Richardson Zoo and The Big Pool were at once warm, lazy and busy in Thursday’s early afternoon as several dozen children and parents turned a Meals on Wheels distribution site into a time to be outside and be together.
Garden City USD 457 and Holcomb USD 363 both coordinate food service programs for children and adults during the summer, providing hot and sack breakfasts and lunches almost every weekday through June and July. Each reach hundreds of hundreds of children each summer.
And they’re not alone, said USD 457 Nutrition Services Director Tracy Johnson. Smaller area communities offer the summer meal programs, partnering through schools, recreation centers, churches and other organizations.
USD 457’s program consists of hot meals at several schools and sack lunches at local parks, public institutions and businesses, partially through the Kansas Meals on Wheels bus, and its reach has been steadily rising. Due in part to additional and changed locations, the programs have gone from handing out just under 15,000 meals in the summer of 2014, to more than 54,000 in the summer of 2018, according to data provided by the district.
Holcomb’s program, which is only available in June, served 2,000 for breakfast and 1,300 for lunch in 2018, according to USD 363 Food Services Director Linda Spence.
The service is significant for a county whose residents largely rely on food assistance throughout the school year. Over the last ten years, just under 70% of Finney County students have been approved for free or reduced-price lunches, compared to 47% of students throughout the state, according to data from the Kansas State Department of Education.
But Finney County’s percentage is not abnormal for southwest Kansas. In the 2018-19 school year, 76% of Ford County students and more than 82% of Seward County students were also approved for the programs, according to the KSDE. All have seen steady increases over the past 30 years.
The boosts are in part because of who calls Finney County home, Johnson said. Many people, including migrant students, homeless students or families using food stamps, automatically qualify for the program without having to fill out an application, making it easier to take advantage of the service during the school year. Others apply for the program based on income and other factors.
And besides accessibility, the food itself, reflecting a school lunch with protein, fruit and vegetables and milk components, has value, Johnson said.
“I don’t know if we, per say, have hungry kids. I think we have malnourished kids just because of what they choose to eat, especially in the summer when they’re home alone,” Johnson said. “So, this gives them an opportunity to come and they get a balanced meal.”
At the Big Pool site Thursday, the food itself was almost a side note to the day out by the park. A dad lifted a toddler to score a basket as parents sat in the grass or in lawn chairs with their kids, eating lunch. Peggy Rios sat beaming on a bench watching her son play soccer with other kids while Brenda Hernandez sat in the shade with her family.
Hernandez said she came to the park with her children and mother in part because it’s good for her younger sister, Jailene, who has an intellectual disability and needs a wheelchair.
“We like to bring Jailene out here because she can be outdoors and see the kids running and that makes her happy,” Hernandez said. “She eats better if she sees people. She has a harder time eating at home. So, if she socializes and she sees the kids and everybody running, she’ll eat better. We mainly enjoy it because of her.”
Many of the families have been coming for years, stopping by when they can. Yareli Munoz can remember coming as a 6-year-old. She’s 20 now, eating alongside what her mom, Teresa, called “the new generation” of attendees.
Multiple parents pointed to advertising for the program — locals could benefit from information available to people who can’t access social media or who miss announcements on school menus at the end of the year. There are still many people who do not know where to go, they said.
But to those that do come, it makes a difference.
Several parents said they do not rely on the free meals, but they appreciate it being available for those who depend on it. Even when the food wasn’t vital, it was valuable, they said. Hernandez said sometimes her mother can take her kids to the park for lunch while she’s at work. Jessica Kuhlmann said she appreciated the chance to save money during the summer and get her kids the kind of balanced meal she might not have time or resources to make.
And years ago, when her family was young and struggling with money, it mattered, Kuhlmann said.
“In the years past, we probably have (needed the meals). It was really kind of a lifesaver the first year that we did it. It was really, really nice,” Kuhlmann said.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.