COLUMBIA — When the kids from Armory Summer Camp get lunch at Douglass Park, they either walk there or get rides from their teachers.
Aries Rodriguez, 9, was one of seven campers who came to the park on a recent, breezy Tuesday.
“We walked here today,” Aries said. “I like coming here because we get to play when we’re done eating.”
Aries lined up with his friends in front of four coolers, excitedly chatting about lunch. Inside each white paper bag the volunteers handed out was a turkey sandwich, applesauce, carrots, a granola bar and a small carton of milk.
“I don’t like the applesauce,” Aries said. “My favorite is the sandwich.”
Around 20 children in the community, including Aries and his friends, ate the free lunch offered at Lunch in the Park last Tuesday. The program marks its 17th year this summer and runs from June 5 through Aug. 4 at Douglass Park from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every weekday.
The program is open to any child younger than 18; however, not every kid in Missouri who needs a lunch is getting one.
Fewer than one in 10 Missouri children who qualify for free or discounted school lunches participated in summer nutrition programs like Lunch in the Park in July 2016, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s 2017 Summer Nutrition Status Report. If one in five kids in Missouri is “food uncertain,” according to the Missouri Hunger Atlas 2016 released by the MU Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, then there’s a disconnect between the programs and the people who need them.
The free lunch programs have been offered for several years, but they suffer from a lack of visibility and public awareness. Laina Fullum, director of nutrition services at Columbia Public Schools, said the programs are usually promoted through posters in school buildings and pamphlets for parents who have children enrolled in certain schools.
Fullum said there have been few efforts to promote the free lunches to the community.
“What we do is make our managers post a couple of signs within the buildings so the people and the parents know that this is happening,” Fullum said, “because that’s where most of kids are going to be.”
Too far to walk
The absence of transportation is thought to be another cause for the low turnout for similar programs around the state.
Dana Doerhoff, director of school nutrition programs at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said without transportation it can be especially hard, if not impossible, for children to make it to the free lunch sites by themselves, which can be miles away.
In Columbia, 11 schools with free lunch programs operate a bus service only for their students to get to school. Children who are not enrolled and need a meal must walk or be given a ride to the school lunch sites. Nor is there transportation to free lunch sites in Columbia that are not based at schools.
Erin Harris, a nutrition supervisor at Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services, said Lunch in the Park has been able to cover children in the Douglass Park neighborhood, but she still worries about kids who are farther than walking distance away.
“Most of them, I would say, walk,” Harris said. “But what about the kids that aren’t within walking? … The hope is that a lot of them will be in school. I really think that is the hope.”
Lunch in the Park at Douglass is one of 19 free summer lunch locations for children in Columbia this year. They are open to any child younger than 18 years old. More than 40,000 lunches have been served through the program over the past 10 years.
Eight of the 19 sites, including Lunch in the Park, are operated by nonprofit sponsors — Boys & Girls Clubs of Columbia and the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri — or a city department under the Summer Food Service Program. The other 11 are under the Seamless Summer Option, which is part of the National School Lunch Program and is based in school buildings during the summer.
The cost of the meals is reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through two state departments: the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Health and Senior Services.
According to the 2017 report from the Food Research and Action Center, Missouri’s average daily participation in the summer nutrition programs in July 2015 was 9.7, which means fewer than 10 out of 100 children eligible for free and reduced-price meals were served by the programs. The national average was 15 for the same period.
The state ranked 42nd in the country for its summer nutrition participation rate.
In Missouri, another decline in free lunch participation happens from June to July. In the summer of 2016, only 493,341 lunches were served in July under summer nutrition programs, which is less than a third of the total lunches served in June, 1.8 million.
Karen Wooton, food and nutrition services coordinator for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the gap might be related to summer school availability.
“Most of the time, summer school is going on in June, and they have the transportation to get to the schools,” Wooton said, “while in July, they don’t.”
This year in Columbia, only one Seamless Summer Option site, West Boulevard Elementary School, is offering free lunches throughout June and July. The other school locations are open in June while the summer schools are in session.
A Missouri mandate requires the Summer Food Service Program sites to be in areas that have 50 percent or more of residing children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The same eligibility applies to the Seamless Summer Option.
In October 2016, half of the total students in the National School Lunch Program were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in Missouri. In Columbia, 44 percent of students enrolled in 33 Columbia Public Schools were qualified.
Stacey Brown, children’s program coordinator at the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, which is running five free lunch sites in Columbia this summer, said the organization has been trying to choose areas that are easily accessible for children and parents while meeting the state requirements.
“There are children that may not have a parent or an adult to bring them to a lunch site. So it should be accessible so that they can get there on their own,” Brown said.
Although there has long been a need for transportation to the summer meal sites for children who are not living in the neighborhood, the program sponsors have no solution to the problem this year.
Alternative ways to solve it are being explored in other parts of Missouri. One of them is the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children, which is a pilot USDA program that provides a $60 monthly benefit per child for families whose children are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In the summer of 2012, more than 10,000 children in St. Louis and Kansas City areas received the benefit.
Wooton said there are no plans yet to implement that program in mid-Missouri.
In St. Louis, the nonprofit Operation Food Search has been distributing meals to hungry children via food truck-style vans since 2012. The mobile service helped increase children participation by 40 percent during the summer of 2015, according to its website.
A need for better advertising
Many participants in Lunch in the Park said they had not heard about the program before they came that day. Laura Darolia brought her two children, Kavi, 2, and Bodhi, 9 months, to the event for the first time on Tuesday.
“We had no idea this is happening,” Darolia said. “We just showed up today to play, and somebody invited us over to have lunch. We didn’t even see the sign.”
To engage residents more, the food bank has recently tried to use social media and spread the word through community events, the food bank’s director said.
“We did an outreach event a couple of weeks ago with our Kids Helping Kids Day and talked to the families that joined us for that,” Brown said. “We hope that that does the job of getting the word out.”
Organizers emphasize that it’s about more than food; it’s about outdoor time.
Aries was all about that. As soon as he finished his lunch, he stood up and ran to the playground with his friends to play football.
“(I’m excited about) the activities like where we get to make paintings and stuff,” Aries said. “I came here last year. I’ll be here tomorrow and mostly all weeks.”
Harris watched as they played football and sang Ruth B.’s “Lost Boy” together.
“It’s just wonderful to see them outdoors,” Harris said. “Each day, we try to have a group there that offers some type of activity. It’s more like an event and not just a meal.”
Harris said she wants to make sure that all the children in the community get a nutritious meal every day, even when they’re out of school.
“No children need to go without food,” Harris said.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.