District 186 students might be on break, but many are still showing up at schools. Six different schools offer free meals to students during the summer months. In this story we take you to Butler Elementary, where lunch is being served:
Outside of the elementary school, right off of MacArthur Boulevard, kids are swinging, climbing equipment, and bouncing balls — but this isn't recess. They are waiting to be fed.
Inside, William Aldridge, who is the kitchen manager on duty, finishes preparing today's menu. There's an assortment including chicken nuggets, ham and cheese wraps, PB&Js, broccoli, apples, salad, and wheat rolls — students coming through the line pick and choose their favorite entree and sides. Those who go for chicken nuggets and a roll only are encouraged to pick a veggie or fruit option.
It's a typical sort of menu, according to Aldridge. He stands in front of a computer and keeps tabs on how many kids go through the line and what they take:
ALDRIDGE : "This program with them taking their fruits and their vegetables — they seem to gravitate towards it and they're doing good. They'll eat their fruits and vegetables most times ... just making sure I keep track of every individual child who comes through."
Also here today is Jan Miller. She is the food service director for District 186 schools. It's Miller's job to make sure kids are getting a balanced meal — guidelines are a little less strict over the summer, but fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains are still a must — especially since schools around the nation moved to stricter guidelines for nutritious foods.
Miller says she tries to make sure kids are given enough options that they can find something they like.
MILLER: "We try to give them variety, because we do what they call offer versus serve. And what that is, we try to provide enough of variety of fruits and vegetables where hopefully there's something there the child will pick and at least they get that in their system."
The summer food program employs about 12 workers to keep a steady supply of breakfast and lunches prepared on weekdays. Any school aged child or teen is allowed a free meal — and adults can purchase one for about $3. Miller says there is a need in a district when the majority of students come from families considered low income.
During the school year, it's likely many students get their most balanced meals at the cafeterias. Miller says that's also the case in the summer ...
MILLER: "Because so many parents are busy — a lot of time parents are working and maybe they eat out more ... I mean if you look at the menus it's a pretty much a variety of things for the children to have."
Miller says she'd like to see more parents taking advantage of the program to help feed their kids. Though on hot days, many families might not want to travel to the school.
Still , the State Board of Education has added 200 sites this year across Illinois that provide the free lunches and breakfasts, in hopes more people will participate. Last year 63,000 children received free meals. That number is from Mary Fergus — with the state board, which allocates money from the the USDA Summer Food Service Program, which has existed for decades to ensure low income kids are fed.
It's not just schools: churches and community centers can serve food as well. Fergus says the program keeps kids in the healthy eating habits they are hopefully learning during months when school's in session.
FERGUS: "We know that a lot of times once school doors close children don't have access to those balanced meals that are offered through the national school lunch program so this is a way to continue that."
In District 186, nearly 50,000 meals were served over the course of last summer. Today, after lunch is over for the kids participating in the SCOPE program, two families come in to eat lunch.
Andrea Gill is here with her two step-children, sister, and infant son. It's the third meal she's come for, and she plans to bring the kids more often. She says she's been impressed with the quality of the food so far, and says it's convenient.
GILL: "It's a great stopping point on the way to the park, it's healthy food for my kids, it obviously helps us financially, I mean there's obviously no down-playing that effect of it. And then there's also the fact that I don't have to do the dishes afterwards and I didn't have to cook the chicken nuggets or the peanut butter and jelly either."
Gill says the other two times she's come here the dining area has been completely empty, and she's surprised the program isn't more popular. The free meal option continues to be offered during the school year. All but three schools in district 186 provide that option to students when classes resume.