COLUMBIA — During the week, Kirk Branham spends most of his noon hours at Douglass Park, handing out cartons of milk or helping fill white paper sacks with the makings of lunch. He's part of a team of volunteers that serves free meals to Columbia's youth through the Lunch in the Park program.
"In the summertime, these kids don't have anything to eat," said Branham, who is retired.
Those interested in assisting with the program may call the Voluntary Action Center at 874-2273.
This is the eighth year that the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, the Voluntary Action Center, Columbia Public Schools and Columbia Parks and Recreation have worked together to provide free and nutritious lunches. Those 18 and younger may participate in the program every weekday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Aug. 21.
“It’s kind of like a supplement to the free and reduced lunches that are provided during the school year,” said Cheryl Harris, the program’s site supervisor.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's Web site reports that just over 33 percent of the students in the Columbia Public School District were eligible for free or reduced lunches in 2008, up from just over 31 percent in 2007.
Mary Martin, public health manager for the health department, said the number of participants declined a few years ago when the school district urged more students to attend summer school, where lunch is also served. This year, the program started out with the highest number of participants since that push, Martin said.
"I think it definitely has to do with the economy," Martin said. "I think people are trying to make ends meet."
Last week was the first since summer school ended, and Martin said the number of kids coming for lunches doubled. On July 21, all 130 meals were gone before 1 p.m., and volunteers began cleanup early.
Participation peaked July 22 with 152 lunches served, said Denise Redmon, community nutritionist for the health department.
The health department receives funding for the program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Martin said a health department nutritionist works with the schools to determine what types of food are cost-efficient, nutritious, tasty and transportable.
The food is prepared at Smithton Middle School and transported to Douglass Park in coolers. Then, rain or shine, Columbia volunteers gather to serve the cold lunches. They fill the sacks assembly-line style: sandwich, carrots, tub of ranch dressing, string cheese and granola bar. At the end of the line, kids choose either white or chocolate milk. The exact menu varies from day to day, but the USDA requires certain nutrients, such as protein, calcium and vitamin C, be included.
Some kids get their lunches to go by grabbing a sack and then running back to the car they came in. Others stay and play in the park, swim in the pool or engage in activities sponsored by organizations.
Martin said many participants are involved in camps or programs with limited funding, such as Fun City. They walk to the park in groups that resemble classes.
On rainy days, it’s common for group leaders to make the trek by themselves. They walk to the site covering their heads with boxes, which they soon fill with lunches to take back. The kids who do come stay dry under a shelter with the volunteers.
The Voluntary Action Center provides the volunteers. "There's been a big surge in volunteers," said Cindy Mustard, the center's executive director.
Servers include members of civic clubs, such as the Golden K Kiwanis Club of Columbia, as well as individual volunteers.
"I'm here for the service, to help the community," said Ryan Pruitt, 16.
He doesn't have his driver's license yet, so his dad takes him to the park once a week. Pruitt will be a junior at Hickman High School in the fall and said community service is good for college applications.
Branham said he saw the program featured on television and volunteered because he enjoys working with kids. He said he also likes the program because it encourages kids to meet new people in the community. Organizations sponsor activities that promote education and community awareness.
"We are trying to make the experience more than 'stand in line and get your food,'" Martin said.
The Columbia Fire Department brings new bicycles for kids to win on the first and third Tuesday of every month, Lt. Debbie Sorrell said. The Fire Department accepts donated bicycles from businesses and individuals.
Sorrell said the department provides bicycles to the program because the participants might not have access to them otherwise. Two of the four bikes awarded last week were Hannah Montana-themed.
The Daniel Boone Regional Library Youth Outreach Bookmobile is to visit the program every Monday through Aug. 14. Last week, the bookmobile highlighted books about horses, and the mounted police also made an appearance.
Mike Helmos, a Columbia Public Works stormwater educator, teaches the kids about the environment on Tuesdays. Sometimes he makes a presentation, and other times he just brings free coloring books for the kids.
Helmos said the program unifies the community.
"Even though Columbia is getting bigger, it's still got that small-town spirit," he said.