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Report: Summer meal programs in McHenry County 'underutilized'

Low participation caused the free summer meals program in Harvard School District 50 to stop early – but that doesn’t mean students aren’t in need of food when school’s out, local officials said.

Bringing more awareness to the program – and possibly partnering with the Northern Illinois Food Bank – so it reaches more people is something those involved with the school hope to implement next summer.

Sponsored by the National School Lunch Program, Crosby Elementary School and Harvard High School provided free breakfast and lunches to children who relied on free and reduced lunches during the school year. However, the programs only ran through June, leaving the months of July and August out of their calendar.

“We have to go on student participation,” District 50 food service director Chris Manfred said. “Without many kids coming, we can’t really open it up the other months.”

The summer programs would serve about 120 breakfasts and lunches a day at both schools combined, a number that’s much lower than it should be, Manfred said.

About 1,625 (62 percent) District 50 students were low-income and qualified for free and reduced school lunches during the 2016-17 school year, district officials said.

Manfred said he thinks the programs’ low participation is because of a lack of awareness rather than a lack of food insecurity.

“Apparently, in the past few years they’ve had trouble bringing families in and advertising the programs,” Manfred said.

“Most of the kids who came this year were from the summer school programs and camps, so we had a hard time attracting kids from the outside.”

This trend is mirrored closely in summer meal participation rates for the state as a whole, according to a July Rise and Shine Illinois report. The number of total summer meals and snacks served through the Summer Food Service Program in Illinois has seen a rather “modest” increase of more than 1 percent between 2016 and 2017.

“This program continues to be severely underutilized by many families and kids,” according to the report. “Barriers like ... distance and lack of awareness stop many from accessing the program and getting the food they need.”

To combat this, Rise and Shine Illinois has listed several tactics for summer lunch site leaders in the report. Among them is partnering with local libraries to incorporate free meals into their summer programs.

After learning of the summer meal program at the McHenry Public Library District, Harvard Diggins Library Director Karen Sutera reached out to youth services manager Lesley Jakacki regarding how to run a summer meal site for the Harvard community.

“We were aware of the need in the area,” Sutera said. “We saw it as a good fit for us to fulfill our role to the community.”

Sutera said even though the library was not able to kick off the program in time for this summer, officials are confident they’ll be able to get something started by the time summer 2019 rolls around.

The Harvard library isn’t the first community center in Harvard to operate a free summer meal site. First United Methodist Church in Harvard was home to a summer lunch program during the summer in 2015 and 2016.

Pastor Eric Blachford said there were some days when two kids would come, and other days when that number would drop to zero.

“Since the high school and Crosby were providing hot meals and the church was giving out cold meals, we had a lower turnout,” Blachford said. “But because those programs stopped early, I would like to start something next summer that will last longer.”

The church’s meal program was sponsored through the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which also experienced a drastic drop in the total number of meals served that year from the previous year. The food bank served a total of 256,522 meals in 2015 and 225,601 in 2016 at all sites, communications manager Elizabeth Gartman said.

In 2017, however, that number shot up to 268,620, and it only is projected to go up by the end of this summer, Gartman said.

“We’re hoping to serve 288,190 meals this year,” Gartman said. “We’re excited about how it’s going so far, and we want to make sure all of our kids are fed this summer.”

The Northern Illinois Food Bank sponsors more than 130 summer meal sites in 13 counties, including Winnebago, Lake, DeKalb and McHenry. McHenry County currently has three open sites: Ladd Park in Crystal Lake, First United Methodist Church of McHenry and McHenry Public Library District.

Sutera, Manfred and Blachford all hope to get in contact with the food bank for next summer. Manfred hopes that a Northern Illinois Food Bank sponsorship will draw bigger crowds of children to the Harvard schools next year.

“If you’re only having a small percentage of kids come during the summer, you know some of those kids are getting food at home, but also a lot of them aren’t,” Manfred said. “The awareness that could come with partnering with the food bank next year could be really good.”

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