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August 10 - 23, 2014

Kids get nutrition, fun from summer food program

By Michelle Martin

Staff writer

Danyette Hale from Catholic Charities hands out lunches to children waiting in line. (Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Parents line up with their children so the children can receive a free lunch from a Catholic Charities mobile food truck at 3300 W. Diversey on Aug 1. Catholic Charities provides the free meals daily as part of their campaign to combat childhood hunger. (Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

A sample of the lunches. (Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

Danyette Hale and Deseree Aitken from Catholic Charities pass out lunches. (Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

On weekdays over the summer, in 56 different places, a white truck pulls up in front of an apartment building or playlot and people start to line up as Catholic Charities workers start to set up tables.

Within minutes, sandwiches, milk, fruit and vegetables are being distributed to children ages 5-18. At the same time, young workers pull out hula hoops and jump ropes and engage the children in games and activities. Children and any caregivers who come with them get information about nutrition and the importance of an active lifestyle. Twenty minutes later, the staff packs up and heads on to the next stop.

The mobile deliveries are part of Catholic Charities Summer Food Service Program that will feed 25,000 children 380,000 meals this summer. The programs are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer food program, administered in Illinois by the State Board of Education.

In Cook County, one in five children is at risk of hunger, according to Catholic Charities. Most of the meals — breakfast and lunch — are served at 140 community-based sites, such as park district or church child-care programs. The mobile programs reach children who do not attend such programs. During July, the peak month, they serve about 4,000 meals a day.

“The summer food service program connects the dots by fulfilling the desperate needs of children to obtain adequate nutrition during the summer and unites us with community partners to create safe spaces for children to eat and engage in nutrition education,” said Diane Nunley, associate vice president of Food and Nutrition Services at Catholic Charities. “By the end of the summer food program, children’s nutrition education increases. Last year, there was a 30 percent increase in children’s understanding of the need to eat five servings of fruit or vegetables and 96 percent of children understood that water is healthier than soda.”

The routes for the mobile program have been designed to bring healthy food to food deserts in Chicago and in the suburbs, said Angel Gutierrez, director of community development and outreach services for Catholic Charities.

“Catholic Charities has spent the last four years really researching the whole phenomenon of food deserts,” Gutierrez said. “Each route is designed to target food deserts.”

It’s also designed for children that Catholic Charities can’t reach in any other way.

“Some kids aren’t in the childcare programs,” he said. “If I have a food program there, it’s closed, and I can’t feed anyone else. … The majority of these kids are getting breakfast, lunch and maybe a snack every day during the school year, and parents have to stretch their resources to provide that in the summer.”

While some of the children show up with caregivers, some come on their own, said Lupe Villanueva, who coordinates the program.

“It’s really important that the children have the opportunity to interact with our staff,” Villanueva said.

“Our model is kind of unique,” Gutierrez said. “The food is kind of the carrot that we give” [to get them there.]

Catholic Charities and the mobile units work closely with the police districts to make sure everyone stays safe. Sometimes local commanders will visit the sites, she said.

“We can’t do it alone,” he said. “We have to do it with our community partners.”

Those partners include not only the police but local park districts, the Chicago Housing Authority and local schools, which distribute information about the food program before the end of the school year. Catholic Charities also partners with Share Our Strength Foundation, ConAgra Foods Foundation and The J.R. Albert Foundation to help pay for the program.