A small line had formed a few minutes before the first minivan pulled up. Kids in flip-flops and bare feet, some in bathing suits and pajamas, stood eager.
“It’s chicken salad today,” one boy whispered to a friend as soon as he saw the first cooler of food open. The buddy clapped his hands together, declaring that to be his favorite.
Many of the kids who gathered inside Crossroads of Lee’s Summit Apartments on this recent Wednesday typically eat free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch at school when classes are in session. But during the summer?
Often the cupboards at some homes get pretty bare between June and mid-August. Or it can be a struggle for families to have enough food for three meals a day, for multiple siblings.
Never miss a local story.
That’s why volunteers with Coldwater, a nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income families in Lee’s Summit, come with sack lunches. Not just on Wednesdays, but five days a week.
“You think of Lee’s Summit as prosperous, with good schools,” said Tom Gitschier, one of the volunteers who made the sandwiches handed out at Crossroads on this day. “And that’s true, but there’s a group that’s in need. You just can’t see it.”
It’s like that in pockets across the Kansas City area. In Missouri alone, one in five children often doesn’t have enough food at home and rely on school year programs for nutritious meals.
And in the 26-county area that the Harvesters food bank serves, only 59 percent of the food-insecure children qualify for federal assistance. That’s why summer food programs can be so crucial, advocates say.
Several organizations, churches and nonprofits pitch in to help make sure children across the metro area have enough food before school starts up again.
Coldwater aims to serve those Lee’s Summit families in areas where there’s a heavy concentration of children who receive BackSnacks during the school year.
Six years ago, the nonprofit launched the No Hungry Kids summer program. In the beginning, it went to multiple locations throughout Lee’s Summit on various days. This is the fourth year volunteers have focused on just two locations — Crossroads and Sage Crossing Apartments — five days a week.
“That way, we could work on that relationship piece,” said Kit Schmidt, who coordinates volunteers for the lunch program.
At one point, a school near one of the apartment complexes began offering lunches during the summer.
“We watched to see if (our) numbers fell, but they didn’t,” Schmidt said. “We assumed they didn’t have a way to get there.”
Some parents work during the day or don’t have transportation to take kids to a location serving lunch. For Delisa Harvey, who has lived at Crossroads for four years, seeing Coldwater come each summer brings some relief.
“It’s one less meal to prepare,” said Harvey, who sat with a group of young girls — including her three — as they ate from their sacks. “With the help, that’s a little more food we can have on our table for dinner.”
Volunteers work off a menu. Two days a week, it’s meat and cheese. Another two, it’s peanut butter. And Wednesday is typically chicken salad day.
One group of volunteers makes the lunches, building the sandwiches and putting fruit and vegetables in the bags.
“I love making chicken salad,” said Sherry Marko as she moved her spoon through the mounds of shredded chicken. “But never this massive quantity.”
Last fall, Marko was looking for somewhere to volunteer. She wanted something that helps kids, interacting with them if she could. This summer, she plans to help out once a week with the Coldwater lunch program and then maybe volunteer with BackSnacks — weekend packs of food for low-income children — in the fall.
After Marko made the salad, Gitschier and his wife, Maureen, loaded it onto white bread slices. The couple do other volunteering but come to Coldwater once a week during the summer, typically on Wednesdays.
On this day, their 13-year-old granddaughter, Anna Eulinger, was in the other room putting bananas into paper sacks.
The couple and Marko move fast, knowing that the next group of volunteers will be there soon.
“I’m a little more generous,” Maureen Gitschier said, looking over at her husband as she piled a mound of chicken salad on a piece of white bread. “I like to fill all the corners.”
Volunteers weren’t at Crossroads long before kids were coming up, ready to play. As well as the lunches, Coldwater takes out a tub of books and one with bats, balls and other toys.
“I saw you one day,” volunteer Trisha Carney, an English teacher at Staley High School, said to one little boy who came up for a sandwich. “I remember that smile.”
The idea is to get to know the kids and their families. And not just during lunch, but also on Wednesday evenings when Coldwater volunteers come out and grill hamburgers and hot dogs and have dinner together.
“The whole complex comes out for the barbecue,” said Ya’Maija Jones as she opened her arm and gestured to all the Crossroads buildings. When it comes to the lunches, the 7-year-old said she sometimes wakes up early so she knows she won’t miss them.
Ten groups of volunteers are needed each week just to deliver the lunches. Volunteer Sarah Knight helps Schmidt set up workers for three days each week at Crossroads.
And she doesn’t have trouble filling the slots.
“People are like, ‘I’ll help, I’ll help,’ ” said Knight. “They say, ‘Put me on the waiting list to come out.’ ”
On this day, a steady flow of kids came for lunches over the period of an hour. If they wanted an extra lunch, say for mom or an aunt or uncle, they could go back after all the kids had eaten.
Since there were leftovers, a few kids took one or two more sack lunches home.
As volunteers loaded up their gear and headed out, kids waved, knowing that another group, armed with more sack lunches, would be back tomorrow.
“Thank you very much for doing this,” Ya’Maija said, sending a message to the Coldwater volunteers. “They really don’t have to do it, but they do. … I love it. Love it. Love it.”