What’s in a free lunch?

I recently started working from home one day a week. Mid-day, I take a two hour break to run some errands and make sure my son gets some running around time at a local park – rain or shine. Today we stopped by a park we rarely visit after a quick visit to the post office.

Officially summer and a little breezy, dark clouds threatened to spill at any moment. But the weather held out as Miles climbed and slid and jumped. As we approached the park, I noticed something going on… birthday party? Week day picnickers?

A line of children stood wriggling patiently. One by one kids aged 2 – 12 stepped forward to meet a volunteer who squirted soap into their hands, which they then rinsed at a spicket before accepting a small box.

I glanced up to read the banner, a huge promotion that hung over the community building next to the playground.

I asked a volunteer about the requirements for the program. None, she explained. The kids just have to wash their hands.

She asked Miles if he wanted a box.

Shaking his head, “no, thanks. I just need to swing now”.

My experience living – temporarily – among hungry and impoverished families took place primarily outside of the United States. Already struck by difference, it was humbling to share a table with a family who often knew hunger. But my experience with hunger or hungry people in my hometown is limited.

It is troubling.

I observed the kids at the park as they took a box and unpacked the goods.

Just what is in a free lunch?

From what I could gather, the kids received an orange, a small carton of chocolate milk, and a PB&J on white bread (probably enriched).

Not so different from what I serve my kids, although they drink regular skim milk and I use whole wheat bread for sandwiches and toast.

I admit I felt a little uncomfortable standing in line to talk to the volunteer about the program, but I wanted to find out more.

My thoughts scattered like sunflower seeds in the garden bed. Some took root, but most were snatched by a clever sparrow before they had a chance to settle.

The volunteer didn’t blink when she saw me, and I confess to wondering if I looked like I needed a free lunch.

Looking around, most of the kids and their parents or caregivers were African-American or Hispanic. Perhaps six or eight non-Hispanic white families were present.

As we left the park, I noticed they ran out of boxes.

A volunteer scribbled in a notebook. “We’ll need to order more.”

She glanced my way. “Sorry, we’ll save one for you tomorrow!”

“Thank you.” I smiled at her. A teenager herself, I observed her quiet eyes and bright voice.

What brought her to serve our community? Is it her community, too?

Oregon kids and teens (ages 1 – 18) get free summer meals five days/week. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is meant to help fill the nutritional gap that occurs when kids out of school are no longer receiving free or reduced lunch on a regular basis. The meal sites are selected in neighborhoods considered to be high need.

This is interesting. Evidently I live in or very close to a high needs area, a neighborhood that is evolving as new and young families move in, and presumably lower income families hang on as best they can. I knew this. But while focused intently on my own family, I don’t often consider what is going on behind closed doors in my neighborhood, down the street, or around the corner.

The Summer Food Service Program for Children was created by Congress in 1968. Funding for meals is provided by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Summer Food Service Program.

In this time of ever-restrictive budgeting processes and obscenely partisan dialog in Congress, it is important for those of us who don’t benefit directly from these critical services to consider what would happen if they were to go away.

read to be read at yeahwrite.me


7 thoughts on “What’s in a free lunch?

  1. Maggie O'C says:

    I am so sorry to say that I started reading this and knew it had to be in Oregon. It fascinates me that we are one of the hungriest states in the nation. How can that be?

    Great post!

  2. Larks says:

    ❤ the free summer lunch program. You're right, it's so hard to know what goes on behind closed doors. And it's all too easy to forget that basic things like hunger are real issues. One in 5 US kids deals with poverty and hunger and one in 11 US residents receive some kind of food assistance.

    It irks me when people are like, "Look at all this money we're spending on food stamps and the like. We need to cut back!" When what they should be shocked and saddened by isn't the money but the sheer number of hungry people. And if we're not the kind of country that cares about feeding hungry kids and families more than we care about money then what kind of country are we? Find program cuts somewhere else.

  3. i totally agree – we must never forget that these services, whether we ourselves use them or not, are critical to the wellbeing of our communities as a whole. Thank you for posting this.

  4. dberonilla says:

    Hungry children is probably one of the worst things to come across, and it’s very unsettling to see it happening so close to home. Charity begins here, they say.

  5. I was just talking to my family about this program the other day (I come from a long line of teachers who worry about their kids when they are out of school). Nutrition and raising healthy kids should be a top priority for all of our policy makers and ourselves. Erin

  6. Monkey Momma says:

    These programs are so amazing, but always scarily in danger of being cancelled. I am a teacher in MD and I know so many of my children go without. Making sure children are fed is a battle worth picking!

  7. jenny leigh says:

    An eye-opening post. Right now in VA, there’s a drive to stock food banks across the state during summer when most people don’t have them in the forefront of their minds. Unfortunately, this need exists everywhere. It may be greater or smaller in different places, but it’s there. It’s great to know there are programs like the one you described!

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