McHENRY – Presented with two options for her lunch at the Garden Quarter Neighborhood Resource Center, 12-year-old Claudia Bandala picked the salad.
She and her twin sister, Daniela, don’t get a lot of salad at home.
Produce is expensive, and so it usually goes to her diabetic father who is more limited in what he can eat, Claudia said. The twins would get a sandwich or hot dog instead.
The two get up early on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to make sure they’re on time to the center, which is located in the Garden Quarter Apartments complex in McHenry. They want to make sure they get lunch.
The Garden Quarter Neighborhood Resource Center teamed up this summer with the First United Methodist Church and Northern Illinois Food Bank to provide kids who attend their programming with free lunch.
After lunch, the kids will take part in different activities: homework help during the school year, playing games or working with the McHenry Garden Club or University of Illinois Extension’s master gardeners to learn how to compost or weed, said the center’s executive director, Licia Sahagun.
All the kids that go to the Garden Quarter Neighborhood Resource Center get free or reduced-price lunches at school, she said. Most of them live or used to live in the Garden Quarter Apartments complex, but the center is open to anyone in the community.
The free lunch program is an offshoot of Mission Backpacks, which McHenry’s First United Methodist Church started participating in this past October, said Lynn Olsen, one of the two church members who run both programs.
Mission Backpacks uses donations from church members to put together bags of food to give kids to get them through the weekends, she said.
Olsen is a substitute teacher, and Trish Eiserman, who runs the programs with her, is a retired kindergarten teacher.
“You see the need,” Olsen said. “You see the hunger. You see it in their faces.”
During one of the first days of the program, Olsen recalls a boy excitedly taking the food, telling her it’s the first food he’d had that day.
“They left, and I cried,” she said. “No little kids should be hungry. There’s too much wealth in this country for kids to be hungry.”
At the end of the school year, a school employee asked them what they were going to do for the summer, Eiserman said. Knowing the Northern Illinois Food Bank had a program to provide lunches over the summer, they coordinated the lunches for the kids at the center.
They average about 16 kids a day, Sahagun said.
Eiserman and Olsen hope to expand the Mission Backpacks program by teaming up with other churches and civic organizations, they said. The main issue right now is coming up with the funds to buy the food to send home with the kids.