Summer food program available to Austin children

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Children in need of a balanced, free meal can head over to an Austin-area church whose gym has been turned into a temporary cafeteria.

The New Birth Christian Center offers the Summer Food Service Program, which serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, for children under 18 who can’t afford to eat those two meals during the summer. Breakfast is served from 9 to 10 a.m., while lunch is served from noon to 2 p.m. Any child can eat without registering.

The USDA– and Illinois State Board of Education-funded program has been around for over 30 years. But four years ago the summer program was added after parents and teachers realized that many children who participated in the school-year program weren’t getting a good meal during the summer.

The New Birth Christian Center is one of two host sites that prepares the food on location and delivers to 35 other sponsored locations on the West and South Sides of Chicago.  Starting at 6 a.m., staff prepare 975 meals daily, 130 of which will be served to the kids on site. The other host site prepares just as many.

“You have a lot of kids that come off the street that are hungry, that need a meal, so that’s rewarding,” said assistant cook Frank Cosby.

For breakfast, kids eat a grain item, like cold cereal with juice or milk and a fruit. Lunch is a vegetable with milk or juice, and anything from a sandwich to tacos or a Polish sausage.

Most of the nearly 130 kids fed at New Birth Christian are part of the church’s summer camp, but about 30 to 40 are kids who come off the street, said Director of Operations Tasha Wilkerson.

“It’s a very essential program and is meeting the needs of the children in the community that would otherwise not have or not be able to obtain a breakfast and lunch,” said Pastor Anthony Hall.

Most kids come in from the very first day and stay until it ends Sept. 3. The program started June 21.

The church’s site monitor, Maurice Day, says there are rules dictating how the federal program must be run. He does daily counts of the children and food, and walks around inconspicuously to make sure no kids are trying to take the food with them as it must be eaten on the premises. He said the USDA doesn’t allow the program to serve as a grocery store for the whole family.

Even though some government programs have been cut, the church hopes those reductions won’t affect the children.

“So far that doesn’t worry me because it’s been a very effective program,” said Wilkerson. “If they cut costs, they might have us cut costs with meals or how we prepare meals, but I really hope they don’t.”

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