The saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is being disproved in Johnson County and all around the country this summer, as schools and other entities take part in a federal program to ensure that children ages 1 to 18 get proper nutrition during vacation.
“A lot of people are leery; they think it’s too good to be true,” said Mary Lang, a food production manager who is working this summer at Overland Park Elementary School, 8150 Santa Fe Drive. “They ask me ‘What’s the catch?’ and I say ‘None.’ You just eat and go home.”
The Shawnee Mission School District has expanded its summer free-lunch program by one to seven schools this year. In addition to two school sites, the De Soto School District is sending a food truck around to a local apartment complex and the city swimming pool. Olathe and Gardner-Edgerton also are participating. (See box.)
Children need not even be residents of the sponsoring school districts to get a meal. They simply have to show up.
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The program is targeted at areas that have a concentration of low-income families, as determined by the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses sponsors for their costs.
The program has existed in Kansas since the late 1970s, according to Peggy McAdoo, assistant director for child nutrition and wellness of the Kansas State Department of Education.
According to statistics compiled by the education department, which oversees the program, the number of total meals served grew between 5 and 10 percent per year between 2010 and 2012, then jumped by about 10 percent last summer. That’s over 1 million free lunches, breakfasts and/or snacks served statewide. Some locations serve two meals (or a meal and snack) per day, while others offer just one.
This is the third summer the Shawnee Mission district has sponsored the summer-lunch program, expanding each year. In 2012, it served 12,000 meals at four sites. Last summer, the number jumped to 16,000 meals at six sites. This year, food services manager Nancy Coughenour expects to serve 18,000 meals.
Thirty-six percent of the district’s student body qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches, Coughenour said, a number that has stabilized for the past three years.
“Times are tough for everybody,” she said. “The great thing is that we are able to help the families.”
Rochelle Walker brought her three sons to Overland Park Elementary for lunch last week after seeing a sign advertising the program outside.
“We came all week,” Walker said. “We’ll come all summer. They really like it, and it helps save on grocery bills.”
Carmen Rodriguez, who will be an eighth-grader, said she liked coming back to her old grade school and seeing old friends.
“It’s cool that if kids are at home while their parents work, they can come here and get a meal for free,” she said.
“We have big hearts for the underprivileged,” said Nora Rodriguez, Carmen’s mother. “I think it’s a great program.”
“I believe strongly in this program,” said Lang, the cook. “I see kids getting fed who might not have food for the summer. Many kids we know don’t get much food over the summer. They are excited to be here. The parents thank us, and we thank them.
“One gentleman said, ‘Thank you for doing this. I don’t have to do the dishes.’ I’ve had grandparents say ‘I can’t offer this at home — two fruits and two vegetables every day to choose from. They’re lucky to have an apple.’ They appreciate the variety of fruits and vegetables.”
Lang said she wished more kids would take advantage of the meals.
“The hardest part is getting the word out,” Lang said.
In addition to email pushes from school offices, food-service workers have used other publicity methods.
“I went car to car every day after school to tell them,” Lang said. “We have posters. We distributed fliers door to door.”
Even so, she said, “I think we’re growing slower than we would like to see. I don’t know if it’s a stigma, but kids need to eat.
“I know. I raised two, and they eat a lot.”
Summer free lunch program
Note: All schools will be closed on Friday, July 4
De Soto mobile lunch truck, weekdays, May 27-Aug. 8:
Clearview Village Apartments, 36000 W. 103rd St., 11-11:30 a.m.
De Soto Aquatic Center, 32907 W. 84th St., 12-12:45 p.m.
Starside Elementary School, 35200 W. 91st St., breakfast, 7:45-8:45 a.m., lunch, 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m., Monday through Thursday through June 26
De Soto Senior High School, 35000 W. 91st St., breakfast, 7:30-9:30 a.m., lunch, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., weekdays through Aug. 1 (No breakfast on Fridays. No service June 30-July 4)
Wheatridge Middle School, 318 E. Washington St., breakfast, 7:30-8:30 a.m., lunch, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., weekdays through July 25
Ridgeview Elementary School, 1201 E. Elm St., lunch, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday through July 2
Central Elementary School, 324 S. Water St., lunch 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, through July 2
All schools listed serve lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. weekdays through July 25
Broken Arrow Elementary School, 5901 Alden St.
Comanche Elementary School, 8200 Grant St.
East Antioch Elementary School, 7342 Lowell St.
Hocker Grove Middle School, 10400 Johnson Drive
Overland Park Elementary School, 8150 Santa Fe Drive
Santa Fe Trail Elementary School, 7100 Lamar Ave.
Shawanoe Elementary School, 11230 W. 75 St.