Wichita students will head home for summer break this week, but many school cafeterias and other sites will continue to serve meals to hungry children.
Forty sites around the city will offer free breakfasts, lunches or afternoon snacks as part of the Summer Food Service Program, which begins May 30.
The program is run by the Wichita school district and paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“There are families who rely on school meals during the school year, and then in the summertime they don’t have that same kind of support,” said Vicki Hoffman, director of nutrition services for the Wichita district.
“This is a great way for a parent to know that their child is getting a nutritious meal.”
The need is apparent and growing.
Nearly 96,000 lunches were served at Wichita sites last June and July, an increase of more than 10 percent over the previous summer. The number of breakfasts increased almost 19 percent, with 30,612 served.
The program is open to all children under 18 but targets those who are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches during the school year. No proof of residency or income is required for the summer meals.
Nearly three-quarters of the 50,000 students who attend Wichita schools are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches.
To qualify for free school meals, families must have an income below 130 percent of the poverty level. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals. For the current school year, 130 percent of the poverty level is $29,055 for a family of four; 185 percent is $41,348.
And once again this summer, a nonprofit group will extend the free-lunch program for two weeks in August, offering meals at several sites after the federally funded program ends.
The all-volunteer effort, “Filling the Gap,” will serve lunches to children at nine locations — neighborhood city halls and churches — from July 30 to Aug. 10.
The two-week time period between when the summer food program ends and when school begins “is a definite gap for those children in our community in need of nutritious meals,” said the Rev. Sally Fahrenthold, a retired pastor. She is heading the project for Partners for Wichita, a nondenominational nonprofit.
The group served about 3,500 meals during two weeks last August and another 2,400 over spring break in March, Fahrenthold said. She expects the program to serve at least 4,000 meals this summer.
Unlike the summer lunch program in June and July, the Filling the Gap program doesn’t receive any public money, relying instead on donations and volunteers.
“We found that the children are indeed hungry or at risk of being hungry,” she said. “Sometimes their parents would bring them because they knew they were having to make a choice between providing a good meal or paying other bills such as rent or electricity.”
At the end of the program last year, children were encouraged to sign notes of thanks for the volunteers and host sites, she said.
“Lots of them wrote little messages like, ‘Thank you for the good food,’ or ‘Thank you for being a friend,’ ” Fahrenthold said. “It’s obvious they appreciated the program and had a good time.”
The Partners for Wichita program once again will buy non-perishable lunches and shelf-stable cartons of milk from the Kansas Food Bank, said Debi Kreutzman, community relations manager for the food bank.
She said her organization is excited that the program will expand to even more locations and reach more children this summer.
“We’re definitely excited to be a part of this again,” Kreutzman said. Summer — or even the two weeks in early August — “can be a long time for a child who is in need of a meal.”