For those in need, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
This summer, sites across the country will provide free, nutritionally balanced meals to any child under the age of 18 who qualifies for free or reduced lunch during the school year. There are some 50 sites in Onondaga County alone. The programs, administered locally by the school districts, are run at the state level by the New York State Department of Education’s Child Nutrition Program Administration. It’s part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program.
All of the sites in Onondaga County are open sites, which means those who attend don’t have to offer proof of income or residency; lunches are free and available to all who enter. In order to qualify as an open site, the site must be located in and draw its attendance from an area where at least 50 percent of the children are from households eligible for free or reduced price school meals.
Both the Liverpool and North Syracuse school districts are participating in the program; Chestnut Hill Elementary on Saslon Park Drive and Roxboro Road Elementary on Bernard Street in Mattydale are both open sites.
Carrie Bonacci, food services director for the Liverpool school district, said the program at Chestnut Hill Elementary has always attracted people from all over the community.
“Whether they’re needy or not, people can come,” Bonacci said. “We have babysitters that come and bring the kids they watch. The summer lunch program is so important for so many reasons. In this economy especially, it’s such a necessity. It’s a win-win for the community, for everyone.”
Given the current economic situation, both Bonacci and her counterpart in North Syracuse, Wendy Swift, noted the importance of a program like this.
“The economy is tough,” Bonacci said. “The number of kids on free and reduced lunch goes up every year. We’ve had so many layoffs and such. Every year, we get more and more.”
Swift said the summer lunch program provides parents, especially working parents, with peace of mind that their kids are getting a healthy meal.
“There are a lot of children that don’t receive nutritious lunches, at least not as nutritious as what we can provide, when school is not in session,” she said. “A lot of parents are working and they can’t provide a lunch for their children. Kids don’t get a home-cooked meal. They come here and they get a hot, well-balanced meal. Parents are assured they’re getting their fruits and veggies in their lunches.”
Without the summer meal program, meanwhile, Bonacci said it’s unlikely kids would get anything so nutritious.
“They would eat less, definitely,” she said. “What they eat wouldn’t be as nutritious as what they could get from us. Our meals are well-rounded and balanced. They would probably eat something; what it is, who knows?”
The summer lunch programs provide an entrée, fruit or vegetables, juice or milk and a snack. All food has to be consumed on-site. The districts are reimbursed by the federal and state government for all meals served.
Bonacci said last year the Chestnut Hill site served anywhere from 50 to 100 people per day, depending on the day of the week, but she suspects that represents only a fraction of those who could benefit from the program.
“I sent notices around to the community [for this year’s program],” she said. “I really want to see more people in here, because I know they’re out there. I want to make sure they’re fed. I’d love to see 500 people a day.”
Bonacci said the summer lunch program could help struggling families to stretch their food supplies.
“I’m hoping that the families that take advantage take the one meal they don’t have to supply and use that for additional food items for the next day or for dinner or for the weekend,” she said. “I hope they’re able to use more nutritional food items for those meals because of this program. That’s the goal I would hope for.”
Families can take advantage of the program daily or just once in a while in a time of need.
“I’d love to see them five days a week,” Bonacci said. “It’s there, and if people know, even if they just use it a couple of times, that’s a good thing.”
Lunch is available from 10:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. weekdays at Roxboro Road and 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. at Chestnut Hill. North Syracuse’s program started June 25 and runs through Aug. 10; Liverpool’s began July 9 and runs through Aug. 17. All food must be consumed on-site. For more information, call the North Syracuse Central School District Food Service Department at 218-2175 or the Liverpool Central School District Food Service Office at 622-7172.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.