Food program expands to meet demand

A federal program for low-income kids is serving more families than ever in the city.

Food Service Coordinator Senior Bobbi Varichak hands a free lunch to University alumni Claire Winkels for her son Benjamin Colehour at Jackson Park in Northeast Minneapolis on Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Jackson Park is one of the truck's four stops to give out free lunches to children under 18 years old as a part of the Summer Food Service Program.

Jaak Jensen

Food Service Coordinator Senior Bobbi Varichak hands a free lunch to University alumni Claire Winkels for her son Benjamin Colehour at Jackson Park in Northeast Minneapolis on Tuesday, July 9, 2013. Jackson Park is one of the truck’s four stops to give out free lunches to children under 18 years old as a part of the Summer Food Service Program.

Branden Largent

On his first day of summer day camp at Van Cleve Park, Como resident Karen Brown’s 4-year-old son was one of several children excited to eat a free lunch after a swim in the Van Cleve Park wading pool.

Brown said her son enjoyed the chicken, mandarin oranges, applesauce, bread roll and milk in the pre-packaged lunch.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said the 37-year-old stay-at-home mom. “Parents are busy working and stressed and don’t have the money to make lunch happen sometimes.”

The free lunch offered at the park is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which provides free food to children who don’t have regular access to nutritious meals during the summer. Since its creation more than 30 years ago, the program has expanded to meet rising demand — and this was its biggest summer yet.

More than 65 percent of students attending Minneapolis Public Schools qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2012, an increase of almost 30 percent from three decades ago.

Minneapolis Public Schools manages the city’s summer food program and offers meals at parks, schools, churches, apartment complexes and youth organizations, even if the children don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch.

About 30 percent of the sites are at Minneapolis parks, with high-demand sites giving out about 100 free meals per day, said Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board recreation manager Larry Umphrey.

Van Cleve Park director Chad Collins said the free lunches and snacks are one of the park’s “marquee summer programs” that draw more families to the park and its facilities.

“You see 30-40 lunches being served a day, and you know the program’s worthwhile,” Collins said.

Although participants don’t have to be eligible for free or reduced lunch, Umphrey said a large portion have said they are.

Growing to meet demand

Last year, the program provided 387,845 meals in Minneapolis — a 12 percent increase from 2011.

The program expanded to 115 sites this year to keep up with demand, said Karina Swanson, of Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary and Nutrition Services.

This summer, the Minneapolis program added a food truck in addition to the new sites. The truck provides meals to children who live near distribution centers that don’t have refrigeration facilities, Umphrey said.

“This is a great alternative for those kind of sites,” Umphrey said. “It’s pretty much a big refrigerator on wheels with smiling people handing out lunches.”

For the first time this year, the program will also sell parents and guardians $15 punch cards good for 10 lunches.

Swanson said both parents and children can eat meals bought with the punch card, which creates another incentive for parents to bring their children to the sites.

The food program runs through August, and Umphrey said he’d like it to become available year-round and provide food on weekends and evenings during the school year.

“I hope it keeps expanding,” he said. “It’s a much-needed program.”