Summer Lunches for Kids

Recently, I was able to briefly escape the mountain of paperwork sitting atop my desk to visit a Food for Kids Summer Feeding site. Martin Luther King Elementary is one out of 30 sites located in the metro serving meals to children ages 0 to 18. Children get the opportunity to eat healthy, balanced meals during the summer months when schools aren’t in session and when programs like the Food for Kids Backpack Program are on break.

Martin Luther King Elementary is the main site where all meals are packed and distributed by our drivers. The process is orchestrated by Brenda, the maestro of operations. She oversees everything from the hub of operations, the cafeteria kitchen. When I entered the kitchen I was greeted with the humming of everyone working diligently, packing meals and planning everything for the next day.

Growing up and attending school I always wondered what happened behind the scenes, beyond the trays filled with grilled cheese sandwiches and mounds of fruit filled wobbly Jell-O. I never dared to venture beyond that border, so heavily guarded by lunch ladies donning hairnets ready to swat unruly students with spatulas. So stepping into the kitchen and catching a glimpse of what actually goes on was rather exciting.

Lunch ladies get a bad rep of being outwardly disdainful of children serving them “mystery meats” scavenged from old gym mats. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration but pop culture has never been too kind to them. When was the last time you saw a lunch lady portrayed without a mole? Meeting Brenda anyone would relinquish this silly notion.

When I met her she was all smiles and happy to answer whatever questions we had. During the tour I was able to see the cavernous freezer which stored meals ready to be shipped out. There was staff in the back chatting while making veggie wraps for students. Work starts at the crack of dawn preparing the kitchen for the day’s work, making the meals and packing meals in containers that are picked up by one of our drivers. There are 4 drivers running 4 routes delivering meals to all summer feeding sites and so far in June alone 59,300 meals have been served. It’s an astronomical number considering the amount of work that’s put into making the meals and finding enough people to help out. At the Martin Luther King site 90 students are fed per week. Along with 4 new drivers lending a helping hand with the program 16 people also came on board to work in the kitchen preparing healthy meals for the kids. It’s a wonder for anyone to take on such a daunting task but luckily everyone seemed to meet the challenge with great gusto, especially Brenda.

When asked why she wanted to participate in the program she said, “It’s a good feeling, when you look at the statistics. If I can help that one child, it’s so fulfilling.”  Brenda went on to mention the story of a father who brought both of his kids to the site and was glad there was a place where children can go to eat a healthy meal. They are part of a large number of families whose children need assistance during the summer months. Last year, according to a 2010 survey about the Summer Feeding Program, about 90 percent of parents said they needed Summer Feeding for their children. It’s a tough time during the long, often punishing, summer months when families have to choose between paying the rising costs of utility bills and providing a meal for their children.

When we left the school I turned back for one last glance at the cafeteria. Brenda went back to helping the staff and I could see her beaming as she packed sack lunches amidst the chatter of students escaping the heat for a meal. It’s been a tough challenge expanding the program and providing meals to so many children but Brenda and everyone who works with her prove that it is possible.

Connie Lam

Connie Lam

Connie Lam is the Marketing Intern at the Regional Food Bank. She recently graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in Advertising.
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When I think of summer, I envision care-free kids consumed by fireflies, bicycles, ice cream cones and make-believe, building tree-house forts and running barefoot through the sprinklers.  Unfortunately, June and July can be the hardest part of the year for thousands of kids in Oklahoma who struggle with hunger.  This is because when school ends in May, so do the free and reduced price meals provided by the School Lunch Program.  For the children who normally rely on these meals for nourishment, the summer months can be a dismal and desperate time.

In an effort to make certain that adventure and bliss reign throughout the summer, and to alleviate worry and doubt for hungry kids, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma operates the Summer Feeding Program.  From June 1st through July 29th, all kids ages 1-18 years, can visit the26 designated Summer Feeding Sites throughout the metro area to receive free, fresh and nutritious sack lunches.  The lunches vary from cold-cut deli subs one day to veggie wraps the next, but each sack always includes a fresh fruit or vegetable, whole grains, protein and a choice of milk.  The food is prepared daily in a central kitchen at Martin Luther King Elementary where a team of AMAZING cooks receive, assemble and package enough sack lunches to feed any kid who needs a meal.  The meals are then picked up and delivered to the sites by a team of AWESOME drivers who make sure that the food is delivered safely and on time.

As the new Programs Director for the Community Initiatives Department at the Regional Food Bank, I was recently able to see this incredible program in action.  I visited Martin Luther King Elementary where the cooks had just finished making 1,500 turkey sandwiches!  I had never seen so many brown-bagged lunches before! In addition to preparing the fresh meals for all 26 Summer Feeding Sites, Martin Luther King Elementary serves breakfast and lunch to around 150 kids a day.

I also visited the Capitol Hill Center, an Oklahoma City Play in the Parks site.  When I arrived I was shocked by the number of kids I saw.  According to the site coordinator, there were 130 kids there that day! It was an exceptionally hot day, but the relentless Oklahoma sun was no hindrance to the running, jumping, chasing and climbing that was going on. When the adults blew the whistle for lunch, I was flabbergasted to see all 130 kids line up single file and wait patiently for their sack lunch.  I guess they worked up a good appetite!  As a Registered Dietitian, I was delighted to see the kids enjoying fresh peaches so much so that juice was dripping from each of their chins!  This is just one of the many nutritious and delicious foods served by the Regional Food Bank and the Summer Food Service Program to kids in the metro area.  With a good meal in their bellies, these kids get to focus on being a kid rather than being hungry.

Gina Stone

Gina Stone

Gina Stone is the Programs Director for Community Initiatives at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. She is a Registered Dietitian with a Masters degree in Dietetics from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
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