POCATELLO — On a recent sunny afternoon, kids poured out of minivans, rolled by on skateboards, and pedaled past on their bikes – all of them headed for a free picnic lunch in Pocatello’s Raymond Park.
The Summer Food Service Program, as these federally-funded, state-administered free meals are called, are available at parks and schools throughout the country and ensure that children and teens 18 and under have access to food when school is not in session.
Last summer in Idaho, more than 4.1 million meals and snacks were served at more than 250 sites, according to the State Department of Education. In July 2021, an average of 23,940 kids were served meals each day (including breakfast, lunch, or dinner, depending on what was offered).
During the school year, districts support students by providing subsidized breakfast and lunch if needed. Some schools also have in-house food pantries and 173 schools statewide participate in The Idaho Foodbank’s Backpack Program, which ensures children have food over the weekend.
When schools close their doors for the summer, those essential programs are put on pause as well. That’s where the lunches in the park come in.
“This program makes schools a central hub for communities while ensuring that children have access to nutritious meals throughout the summer and are healthy, happy and ready to return to school to learn in the fall,” Maggie Reynolds, a public information specialist with the SDE wrote in an email. “Feedback on the program has been positive, especially as it has assisted families experiencing food insecurity to access healthy meals throughout the uncertainty of the pandemic.”
While the meals are free for anyone 18 or under, they are only served in neighborhoods where 50 percent or more of the children and teens qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, according to Jonathan Balls, the director of business operations at Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25. In SD25, an average of 699 students per month took home weekend food backpacks in the 2021-2022 school year – a number that illustrates the level of food insecurity in the community. In the four weeks since the summer food program began, the district has already served 38,891 meals.
“It’s a great program to assist our families with meeting their basic needs,” Dr. Douglas Howell, the superintendent of schools for Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25, said. “It’s also a good opportunity for socialization.”
Last Thursday, co-parents William Braden and Rebecca Bowcutt stood in the lunch line at Raymond Park with their 2-year-old son, Ryder. They often take Ryder to the park for lunch and enjoy the “family vibes.”
“It’s nice that they’re helping people out for free,” Braden said.
Behind them, Lindsey Humphreys was slathering sunscreen on a group of 5-9 year-olds from Adventures in Daycare. She said she takes the kids to a different local park each day.
“It’s a great program,” she said. “For some kids, you just don’t know – it could be their only meal today. And all the kids get to play together.”
Food Service Worker Linda Nielson said parents are very appreciative of the program, noting that kids with working parents are able to come down to the park on their own to eat.
The program is also a boon for school district employees who want to work and earn more money in the summer, including bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Nielson, who works in the cafeteria at Gate City Elementary during the school year, is one of them.
Across town at Alameda Park – where more than 400 people are usually served each day – Sherry Thornley and her three children, Talisa (9), Ashlyn (7), and Matthew (4) were spread out on the grass with lunches sprawled before them.
The best part of the summer lunch program? “When you’re done eating, you can play,” Talisa said.
Her brother Matthew was getting started already, running around the group and tapping heads in a game of duck-duck-goose.
“It’s awesome. We get time outside together,” Sherry said, but added that she wished the food were fresher.
The federal government created the summer food program in 1968 and began piloting it in 1969. Schools, local government agencies, camps, and community organizations are all welcome to manage or sponsor a summer meals program.