KC-area children flock to summer lunch programs

These last boys in the free-lunch line came with their hair and shirts soaked in the rich smells of hot summer.

Their spoons raked in the baked beans. Their hands gripped their chicken sandwiches. And the way they came shyly sniffing for seconds from the Fort Osage School District’s food servers made this much clear as well:

They came hungry.

“I rode my bike . from Baker,” a 9-year-old said, indicating a street at least a mile away from the First Baptist Church of Buckner, one of the sites where the school district is serving up free breakfast and lunch for children.

Summertime always puts children at more risk of missing out on healthy meals. The danger has risen this summer in a harsh economy that has more families in need at the same time that districts are cutting back on summer school.

Many area schools and social service agencies are trying to bridge the gap.

The children typically won’t say what this food might mean to them — whether it’s just a free meal, or the only real meal they’ll get that day.

But Tammy Potter, manager of the Buckner Elementary School cafeteria, said she has heard the quiet thanks from some parents since the district began offering the meals last summer.

“They told us all summer, ‘It’s a blessing,’ ” Potter said. “Some lost jobs. Some had to walk a distance because they didn’t have cars. I heard it over and over, ‘It’s a blessing.’ “

This summer, school districts and community service organizations are working harder to spread the word about the meals for children available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer food programs.

Fort Osage, Kansas City, Hickman Mills and Kansas City, Kan., are just some of the school districts advertising their food programs to their communities. Social service groups such as Harvesters and church organizations including the Summit Lunch Program in Lee’s Summit are increasing their roles.

Harvesters’ Kids Cafe program is serving about 3,300 children daily to help fill the deepening need.

School records in Missouri and Kansas show that the number of families considered economically stressed has risen sharply over the past four years.

At the same time, budget pressures have compelled many districts to reduce their summer school programs.

Families who rely on subsidized school meals to help feed their children often struggle through the summer months when classes are out.

But in many school districts, free meals are waiting for all children, not just those who qualified for subsidized meals during the school year. Adults can eat, too, breakfast and lunch for prices ranging from $2 to $3.50.

The Kansas City School District is continuing food service at four sites spaced around the district and is putting out the word to all its families.

“It’s to serve my students throughout the year,” said Ellen Cram, the district’s child nutrition director. “I worry about them in the summer.”

Kansas City isn’t alone. It’s not just districts that have long had higher poverty rates that see more need. Since 2007, larger school districts across the area have seen significant increases in the number of families qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.

Shawnee Mission rose to 33.2 percent in 2011 from 19.2 percent in 2007. Olathe rose to 25.5 percent from 16.8 percent, North Kansas City to 46 percent from 37.2 percent, Blue Springs to 27.2 percent from 16.4 percent.

Without the free meals being served at Gladstone Elementary School in Kansas City’s Northeast neighborhood, Maria Ibarra would have made sure her six children were fed, but finding a way is “muy difícil,” she said.

Hers was one of several families who came by recently for a lunch of spaghetti, bread, salad and apple slices. Her husband’s work at construction sites supports the family, but is sporadic.

The food program, she said in Spanish, will put her in a better position to provide clothes and school supplies in the fall.

Same goes for Maria Hernandez and her four children. She will be able to provide “ropa por los niños, y zapatos.”

Clothes for the children, and shoes.

Nationwide, federal records show, schools and community groups served 134 million meals last summer, up from 120 million in 2007.

But the program wants to reach more children, said U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Jean Daniel. More providers are needed as schools and community services facing budget cuts shut down.

“Not as many sites are available,” Daniel said. “That is a constant issue.”

The number of Missouri students enrolled in summer school dropped dramatically in 2010 because of state budget cuts, from 782,771 in 2009 to 485,106. That drop was the primary reason that the number of summer meals served fell from 4.1 million to 2.9 million.

Kansas, which involves fewer students in summer school, saw its numbers decline from budget pressures after 2008. Its enrollment fell in two years from 60,344 to 43,123 last summer.

Becky Iloilo is thankful that the Fort Osage School District is carrying on its summer nutrition program. Last year, when her husband’s work was more off and on, she was one of those calling the program “a blessing,” she said.

With work steadier this year, the meals still help families in a rough economy keep children eating nutritiously during hectic summers.

Kids can get into bad habits, she said, but the school meals “allowed us to keep fruits and vegetables in our diet.”

The boys on their bicycles — who’d come without parents — bolted back into the summer steam, their bellies filled with chicken sandwiches, baked beans, peaches and milk.