Summer means fun and freedom for many children but it can also mean hunger for them as parents struggle to pay bills. Without the safety net of the schools offering free or reduced lunches for children, hard choices sometimes have to be made by Waukesha parents.
Feed the Kids, a Waukesha-based program of the Salvation Army, works to fill children’s stomachs by filling a gap in support services for children whose households experience poverty.
About a third of children in the Waukesha School District are eligible for the free-and-reduced lunch program because of their poverty-level household income, with the number of children eligible for the program increasing every year. But during the summer when school isn’t in session, that safety net doesn’t exist.
Feed the Kids began in 2003 to fill that gap, according to Rachel Fjellman, Social Service Director at the Salvation Army.
“It’s for children who would otherwise miss having a lunch during the day,” Fjellman said.
Feed the Kids, coordinated by Waukesha resident Sally Graser, serves about 200 children each day mid-June through mid-August in two different Waukesha parks, Sentinel and Woodfield. The program is also available for children during spring break. Last year, Graser and her crew served more than 7,000 bag lunches to children in Waukesha.
At Sentinel Park, a small, half-acre park in what Graser remembers as a good area of the city, the program sometimes serves up to 150 children. Further west at Woodfield Park, a newer site for Feed the Kids that abuts an area of apartment complexes and duplexes, the program sometimes serves up to 50.
According to the Salvation Army website, the program has seen significant increases with more than 40 percent more lunches being served. This increase can be attributed to an increase in need by local families as well as the expansion into Woodfield Park and a new partnership with the Waukesha Public Schools Bookmobile program, with teachers volunteering their time to read to children.
Graser, with the help of usually six to eight volunteers, sometimes more depending on who signs up to help, make lunches every morning at Salvation Army consisting of hand-cut fruit, sandwiches – either PB&J or lunch meat for children who can’t have peanut butter, a snack and water. Water is essential because of the summer heat and because Sentinel Park, which offers a playground program for children, has no water available (nor bathroom facilities).
Her volunteers are mostly individuals but sometimes they are people serving court-ordered community service. Other times, it’s people who do it as a family or group service project.
Sometimes it’s a small group of people who help. Earlier in the week, Graser had only three volunteers to make lunches. In those cases, she’s can depend on reliable help from her grandson Jesse Rosario and long-time volunteer Aly Underwood of Muskego.
One of this week’s volunteer groups was the Brookfield Central Junior Lancers basketball team, who offered a lot of helping hands with about 20 volunteers.
Making the lunches for other children made an impact on the group. A chaperone reported that one of the boys asked another, “Can you imagine those kids going without lunches?”
The group then went to the parks to help serve the lunches, adding to the meaningful experience for the group, which also participates in other service projects.
Graser is adept at finding support for the program, not only volunteers but also donors. The snack is popcorn twice a week, thanks to a donated popcorn machine, or sometimes cookies donated by Girl Scouts, or ice cream, also donated. Bananas for the children are donated by Kwik Trip.
The cost of the program, other than staffing, is the purchase of perishables, with many non-perishables donated in an ecumenical effort by local churches including Elmbrook Church, River Glen Christian Church, Ascension Lutheran Church where Graser is a member, and Zion Presbyterian Church, to name just a few.
But for Graser, a special education assistant during the school year, the focus is on the children and their families.
“We try to give them something healthy to eat,” Graser said.
A lot of work goes into planning what to offer, from simple things like offering the kinds of foods children would like to making sure the offerings are kid-sized.
Cutting the apples into wedges and offering a peanut butter dip makes a healthier, more appealing snack but takes more work than just offering the apples, especially when feeding 230 children. The additional 30 children attend day care at the Salvation Army.
“When I first started here, people looked at me like I was crazy, wondering how was I going to do all that. And I thought, ‘Just you watch,’” Graser said.
When the program first started, she said that sometimes kids would play with their food instead of eating it but now kids eat all their lunches because they’re appealing.
“We try to give them choices. It’s amazing how they pick good things to eat. Of course, we try to only offer nutritious food but they’ll still choose the healthiest items because we make it appealing,” Graser said. The lunch bag may also offer something different from what they get at home.
“With things like apple wedges, they will come up and ask ‘Can I have one more?’ Because those are more costly and they may not get those at home,” she said.
The program feeds a wide variety of kids and, Graser said that “with the economy the way it is,” more moms are showing up with the kids. She said that watching the parents sit by without offering them something to eat, as supplies allow, wouldn’t be right.
The children are all ages, from babies brought by their mothers all the way up to adulthood, with only some teens because “it’s kind of embarrassing to be in that situation,” Graser explained. However, she offers compassion and empathy, not judgment.
“Anyone can be just one paycheck or one illness away from being in a bad situation,” she said.
She explained that summertime is the time of highest need with no food program available from the schools and kids are active and hungry. Parents focus on transportation and putting a roof over their head and they may have lost their job, she said.
“They have to pay for that stuff first,” she said.
Despite rosy pictures that state statistics paint about low poverty in Waukesha County, the need is real for those living in poverty.
This summer, someone at one of the parks pointed out a car nearby that was being lived in. Graser thought maybe it was full of clothes because it was laundry day but, no, the family car had become the family home.
Facts & Figures
Determined by the U.S. government and not adjusted for regional cost-of-living differences, the weighted, average poverty threshold for a four-person family is $21,954.
From a City-Data.com, children below poverty level, 2009:
From Wisconsin Department of Instruction, free or reduced-price school meal eligibility
Free or Reduced-Price School Meal Eligibility
2008-09 % Total Free and Reduced
2009-10 % Total Free and Reduced
Waukesha School District