Food Programs In Nebraska Keep Kids Fed And Busy During Summer

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August 6, 2019 - 6:45am

150,000 students in Nebraska receive free and reduced lunch during the school year. Many of those students are still in need of meals during the summer months. Summer food programs in Nebraska are doing their best to help children in the state stay fed and busy.

Children standing in line for lunch at Central Elementary school in Fairbury know exactly what they want and don’t want for lunch. The program in Fairbury runs all summer long. Jane Rhine, the food service supervisor for Fairbury Public Schools, says the program has grown over the past 10 years.

Frances Wood (middle) serves a child food at the "Crunch and Lunch" day camp program in Lincoln. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)


"This June we served just over 1,500 kids," Rhine said. "So that was up a couple of hundred from last year. It's great. This year, we're already had 500 for July, which is considerably less but because of all other factors, but above what we've done last year in July, so much better participation this year."

During the school year, whether a student can receive free and reduced lunch is based on his or her parent’s income. However with the Summer Food Program in Nebraska, all kids ages 1-18 are eligible for the meals. There are 255 sites across the state feeding children in Nebraska communities. They’re reimbursed from a USDA grant. There are 850,000 meals served to students every summer in Nebraska. On the menu on this day in Fairbury, it’s fiestada pizza and corn.

Rhine says in a smaller community like Fairbury, it’s not just the kids who receive free and reduced lunch who take part in the program.

"This is a great thing for all kids whether they need it or whether they just want to come and hang out with their friends," Rhine said. " It gives them somewhere to go that they know they're going to get good food (and) they don't have to scrounge the refrigerator and see what there is."

Kayte Partch is the director of the National School Lunch & Summer Food Service in Nebraska.

Children enjoy lunch and the company of friends at Central Elementary School in Fairbury, Nebraska.(Photo by Brandon McDermott)


She says there are more than 30 food sites in Omaha, about 10 in Lincoln and the rest are spread out across Nebraska. The hope, she says, is for this program to extend to other communities like in north-central and western Nebraska where there are less food sites available.

"We are still working on trying to get more community organizations involved in helping support their local Summer Food Service sites in terms of offering more activities for the kids," Partch said.

Eighty percent of the sites are run by public schools in Nebraska. There are also food banks, the Salvation Army, churches, and mobile food trucks which visit parks, apartment complexes and swimming pools. It’s not just food these programs are providing. In Fairbury, Jane Rhine says they’ve found an interesting way to pull kids in.

"We randomly put stickers on the trays and (it’s) a fun way for the kids to find out if they get to pick out a prize," Rhine said.

Rhine says it’s an incentive for them. The more they attend, the better chance they have for the grand prizes at the end of summer.

Workers serve a balanced lunch for children in Lincoln. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)


"This year we have two Infinity Frozen Xbox games, a miniature drone and a nice Hot Wheels (RC) car," Rhine said.

Rebecca Nickel is a parent in Fairbury. Her four kids attend the summer food program every day.

"We started when my oldest, who's 11 now, when he was in kindergarten," Nickel said.

She says it’s a good way to keep the kids out of trouble.  

"They just love coming down here," Nickel said. "Just to get out of the house and the best part is I don't have to cook lunch."

Nickel says it’s also a way for the kids to socialize and strengthen friendships.

"I just think it's a great program, Nickel said. "Kids love it. They have a good selection of food and have a lot of fun."

At Peter Pan Park in Lincoln, the activities are different. On a scorching July day, kids are playing relay races with buckets of water. Frances Wood runs the Crunch and Lunch program in Lincoln. It’s a day camp which starts with outdoor activities, then the kids walk a few blocks to a food site at the Connection Point Church.

Wood says it’s also helpful for the children to see a familiar face every day at lunchtime.

Inside the "Cafegymatorium" in Fairbury. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)


"(To) be able to work with them on a recurring basis. Which is really important for me," Wood said. "I think that it helps the kids to have a continuous person that they can trust that they're going to see during the summer."

That familiarity increases the chance they’ll come back to the summer food program, for food, friends and fun.

"Every time the kids come to camp, they're in a good mood and they're excited to see what we're doing, Wood said. "So I think that that is kind of a testament to it."

Between 15-20% of the students receiving free and reduced lunch during the school year are getting these meals during summer. Partch says there is a push to provide a gardening branch of the program. She thinks this would help encourage kids to grow the food they eat – giving them important skills and empowering them along the way.



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