‘A huge benefit’ – APS free summer lunch program enters tenth year of service

Published 8:18 am Saturday, July 7, 2018

It was lunch time at IJ Holton Intermediate School on Tuesday.

Bustling inside the cafeteria were small groups of young school children and their parents. While some scrambled to find seats, others got in line to retrieve their lunches: French bread pizza, pizza sauce, diced pears, assorted fresh fruit, corn and a milk of their choice.

Many of the families present inside the cafeteria were participating in summer programs. At lunch time students are ushered into the cafeteria for a meal, and there, they can meet up with some of their friends who they may not have seen since the end of the school year.

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Blayne Becker, 6, took a big happy bite out of his lunch, while his mother Kristen Becker, a Woodson Kindergarten Center teacher, helped Blayne’s older brother Brayden, 9, open his milk carton.

“This program is a huge benefit to our community,” Kristen said. “Plus it’s great being able to see my (former) students.”

An Austin Public Schools official agreed. Mary Weikum, food and nutrition director, shared that making sure youth have access to good food helps in all areas of development, both physically and mentally.

“It helps with behavioral issues, kids aren’t sick as much, and it also helps brain development,” Weikum said. “There’s also a social aspect to eating lunch with friends. Students may be more isolated during the summer. This program helps continue kids’ development and prepare them for back to school.

“It’s comforting for fifth graders to have lunch at IJ Holton, and they can spend time getting familiar with the building, how the lunch room works, and more. For new freshmen, when fall comes, it’s not so scary for them to get familiar with new buildings before major life changes.”

Blayne Becker, 6, enjoys a free hot lunch at IJ Holton Intermediate School on Tuesday, as part of the free summer lunch program through the Austin Public School District.

‘It’s a necessary program’

The summer lunch program has been serving meals for students and adults for over the last decade, and has since serve more than 250,000 free meals to children around the area. The service is not based on income and is available to the public. For students from ages 1 through 18, they’re able to take advantage of the free meals while adults pay a minimum of $4.

Two sites are open for breakfast and lunch at IJ Holton and Austin High School from Monday through Friday. Breakfast is served from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The high school site will continue to serve meals through Aug. 27, while IJ Holton will serve meals through Aug. 24.

“The amount for lunch is set by the USDA,” Weikum said. “They look and project the cost for us to prepare these lunches. It averages us about $3.98 minimum for adults because the USDA doesn’t want the money (or funding) for kids to be subsidized for adults. We prepare meals for the children, and the cost to prepare food is how the USDA sets the price for adults. We’re not making a profit, and it’s not a break-even thing. They want us to feed them without being in the red. It’s not a money making situation either.”

During this program, Weikum estimated that around 800 meals were served per day, and around 300 breakfasts combined from both sites.

“All anyone needs to do is to come in,” she said. “We are noticing this year that there was an uptick (of students) coming for breakfast from their home, riding their bikes over and having breakfast. It’s a necessary program to keep kids healthy and fed all year round and helps them get ready for school in September. It’s really icing on the cake, and students are getting really good nutrition and are ready to learn again.”

Kristen Becker and her two sons—Blayne, 6, in the blue shirt and Brayden, 9, in the red shirt—at the free summer lunch program Tuesday. Hannah Yang/hannah.yang@austindailyherald.com

Meal options have a little more variety than the food offered through the school year. Families can enjoy chicken patties, shrimp poppers, and an assortment of cold sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly being the most popular request among students. Menus are on a two-week rotation schedule online, and parents can still access their nutritional components. Weikum noted that fresh vegetables and fruit are still part of the meal.

“Regulations are still there, but not as as strict in the school year,” Weikum said. “They can’t have some things that were their favorite like breaded chicken sandwiches. It’s kind of fun to have chicken patties and things on the menu that no longer make it on there during the school year.”

The biggest change made to the lunch program within the 10 years of operation was the free breakfast that became open to the public about three years ago. Although students have had access to breakfast in the mornings, the community was now able to have the chance to grab some food, too.

“I hope that this would help continue to serve the families that need us, continue to hope to expand our offerings and expand the number of kids (served) each day,” Weikum said. “I think the best thing is being where they need us, and finding the sites where the students are at, instead of them finding us, it’d be more of us finding them.”