Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Local News

June 12, 2013

Food for thought

Free summer lunch programs benefit area kids.

[Editor’s note: The Kokomo-Center Schools board voted Monday to change the district’s name to Kokomo School Corp. The Kokomo Tribune will refer to the district by that name from now on. For more details about the name change, see the breakout box titled “District changes name.”]

Ten-year-old Elijah Belcher tightly wrapped a tortilla stuffed with meat, cheese and veggies Tuesday and hand fed it to his 3-year-old sister.

All around the clubhouse at Garden Square Apartments, children shoved soft-shell tacos into their mouths, trying hard not to spill the contents in their laps.

It was the second day of the Kokomo School Corp. Summer Food Service Program. By noon, nearly 30 kids showed up at the apartment complex for a free meal.

Schools, parks and recreation services, nonprofits and churches across the nation are serving these free meals as part of a summer program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Summer food programs help lower-income students return to school ready to learn and help parents stretch their food dollars at home during the summer months.

“Feeding programs are vital to education,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said. “Hungry kids cannot learn or retain knowledge effectively. Good nutrition is essential for learning in school, but hunger does not take a summer vacation.”

There are four Howard County sites this year. Kokomo Schools operates one at Garden Square and one at Carver Community Center. Taylor Community Schools runs one at Taylor Primary School in Indian Heights. According to the Indiana Department of Education, Kokomo Rescue Mission also has an open site at its facility. They couldn’t be reached Tuesday to confirm that, though.

Eight-year-old Landen Johnson sucked chocolate milk through a straw and quickly gobbled up the tacos, green beans and peaches on his plate at Garden Square. He was still hungry, though.

“I’m going to get seconds later,” he said.

The lunch was tasty, he decided. But pizza is his favorite. He will definitely be back today when it’s served, he said. It will provide the needed fuel for his baseball game tonight.

Kokomo Schools works hard to choose foods that kids like to eat, said Dave Barnes, director of communications for the district.

They serve foods like chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, sub sandwiches, hot dogs with coney sauce, vegetables, fruit and milk.

It’s important they make it appetizing, Barnes said.

“For some of these kids, it’s the only meal they will have today,” he said. “We know the reality from what they tell us at school.”

Jackie Peden knows this all too well.

She lives in Garden Square and has volunteered with the summer food program since 2004.

In those nine years, she has gotten to know the children in the neighborhood well. She watches them on the playground to help parents on occasion. And she sees them summer after summer when she serves them lunch.

“I’m making certain ones eat,” she said Tuesday. “I know the home situations.”

For years, she would knock on doors to tell kids about the food program. Health issues prevented her from doing that this year.

But she won’t stop serving meals. It’s her way of giving back to the community, she said.

“I love to do it,” she said. “I wait all winter for this. I don’t have any children, but I love kids.”

Barnes said the free lunch program wouldn’t happen without volunteers like Peden.

Last year those volunteers served 3,054 meals at the district’s three open sites throughout the summer.

Peden is just glad the program is out there and available to those who need it.

“It’s very important,” she said. “It should be everywhere.”

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