What Happened to “Free Lunch” in the Summer?

One of my fondest memories of adolescence is walking down my little ranch house street of Hammes Avenue in Kankakee, Illinois, holding my toddler brother’s hand, in the summertime, when I was out of school and he was out of the babysitter’s, and my parents were at work, and the elementary and junior high schools across the main road served lunch to kids every weekday as usual.

My little brother was born when I was already a young woman, as a 12-year old with an old soul. I adopted him as my little live baby doll. My parents had no need to put him in daycare over the summer because he went wherever and my sisters I went, usually. In addition to my girlfriends’ homes and family errands, we walked in Illinois summer sun to lunch at one of the schools. Otherwise we had to walk far to a relative’s house for an automatic snack as soon as we came in, or wait until our parents cooked later.

The summer free lunch menu seemed better than the regular school year menu: more of those flat and sloppy little pizza rectangles even high school kids cut the line for, more chicken nuggets, more cookies and little treats, more fresh fruit, more leftovers and extras, less lines and wait, no rush to eat and leave. Instead of being hurried in and out for a specific period we could actually linger the entire open lunch period, wait for friends, go out and come in again. Some of the more daring boys even brought their boom boxes to the cafeteria- no hall monitors, no on-duty teachers, no demerit scouts. It was a surreal experience of school, where the very building and process of eating lunch was all the same but the circumstances were so much more grown-up and leisurely.

I believe the summer meal program was supposed to be for low or no-income families but nobody checked. Whoever walked through the open doors ate. Even some grownups who knew the cooks and relatives of the children stopped by. Nobody cared. The balanced meals- protein, starch, fruit, and vegetable- were certain subsidies to many families who normally did not account for a third daily meal in the grocery plan until school let out. Free lunch at schools in summer was a solution. It is amazing how what others may look down on is something others look forward to.

In my small hometown, many of these school cafeterias are still open in summer. Some have been cut, but any kid willing to walk ten minutes in most directions can find a set location for free lunch. In larger cities, families must get children involved in some sort of summer day camp or program to have a meal at lunchtime. I have worked in them. Food was prepared offsite and driven in; sometimes the meals were late or cooled off, and often not enough meals came for the number of children present.

Of course, after a long day beginning around eight, the young people were hungry by lunch. I and other teachers had to leave behind cafeteria supervision and lesson planning duties to join the cafeteria ladies to improvise as fast as we could: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fried bologna wraps, government cheese and crackers, grilled government cheese. I got used to keeping snacks on hand for afternoon classes, when the hunger headaches set in and the craving for fifty cent chips or quarter cakes at the corner store crashed the room.

I wish for a country where every kid will grab a younger kid’s hand and just walk around a few corners for those little compartmentalized lunch trays I still get nostalgic looking at, the way I did every summer. I am unsure what’s going on when no money can be squeezed out of school budgets, local governments and national initiatives for something so important. Clearly, churches in low-income communities have so much to think about when they pass the collection plates; is it impossible to add food programs, too? I am unsure- my point of writing this is not to judge anyone. I know I have not at all stayed committed to that little kiddie barbecue plan I came up with some years ago when a few of my friends’ private barbecues drew fast-swelled crowds of kids we offered excess food to. I know I have had excuses:

“I catch up on work over the summer,” “Oh next weekend,” “When this goes on sale,” “When I get a real house with a bigger backyard,” etc…

I know I had a wake-up call last Fall when Viola Davis gave a riveting speech about suffering through hunger as a gifted but poor child in the South, and from there I found organizations like No Kid Hungry to drive me to more accountability to all God’s children.

Now that school is out many children who are either neglected or part of low-budget households will forage for junk food and miss meals outside of a regular school lunch. Make a donation at www.NoKidHungry.org to help fund summer food programs in financially strapped communities, use their form letter to write your local and state officials about steadily declining summer food programs in low-income communities, throw a picnic for kids this summer, or take some young kids you see often out to lunch to ready them for workplace norms.

Summer Action Day for No Kid Hungry is June 22, 2015. Spread the word. Do one small thing… It’ll all add up.

Team No Kid Hungry

3 thoughts on “What Happened to “Free Lunch” in the Summer?

  1. I enjoyed this post and I am proud to say that the district I work for is providing summer lunches to all kids who are interested. The parents can eat also (for a very small fee) and the kids eat free. This is the first year for this program and it’s already gotten off to an excellent start.

    Liked by 1 person

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