When 10-year-old Katie Paul was told she was too young to volunteer at a Columbia food bank, her determination to lend a hand wasn’t squelched.
“My mom just kept looking for places I could help out, and we found this,” she said.
Katie was working at Lunch in the Park, a free summer lunch program sponsored by the Voluntary Action Center and the Columbia/Boone County Health Department. Now in its fourth year, the program offers children nutritious meals Monday through Friday at Douglass Park.
Volunteers of all ages are welcome, said VAC executive director Cindy Mustard.
“We see a lot of the same faces. Some come once a week, a few come every day,” Mustard said. “And of course, we love seeing new people and new volunteers.”
Katie spent her first day as a volunteer Wednesday making sure condiment packets made it into each lunch bag. She stood at the end of a picnic table transformed into a mini assembly line staffed by volunteers. One by one, a ham sandwich, bag of grapes, carrot sticks, chips and trail mix are dropped into the bag as it’s passed down the line.
The last question asked of each child before receiving his or her lunch — “White or chocolate milk?” — is posed by 4-year-old Joseph Trumbo, who is proof that being a “helper,” as he proudly calls himself, can begin at a young age. Joseph, along with his mother, Maria Trumbo, help serve lunch every day.
Michael Frost is another daily face at the park. Having no previous volunteer experience, he said he thought the program sounded worthwhile. “I’ve been here since day one, every day,” he said. “The best part is watching the kids smile and have a good time.”
Joseph — who appears to have a great time and does his best to make sure everyone else does, too — skips and bounces around the picnic tables, chatting with other volunteers and welcoming guests with his big, toothy smile. “He’s our ambassador,” Mustard said.
Mustard said the program, funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was created to provide a daily nutritious lunch to children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year. The lunches are prepared by the Columbia School District.
“Kids can have something good to eat, something besides chips and Coke,” she said.
At noon, children from Columbia Parks and Recreation STARS (Seeking Traditions Art and Rights of Passage) camp arrive for lunch, as they do every day. Frost and the other volunteers, some who had been taking a short lunch break themselves, jump up to greet and serve the children.
Soon, four or five picnic tables fill with children chatting and laughing, some trading grapes for carrot sticks and gulping down their chocolate milk before running to the nearby playground. Their presence is a welcome sight for Mustard and the volunteers in a summer when attendance has been down from previous years.
Mustard said the number of meals fluctuated this year because, for the first time, the school district’s summer school program ran all day and offered lunch. In June, sometimes as few as 30 lunches were served daily. Now that summer school has ended, Mustard said numbers have begun to rise, with an average of about 100 lunches served each day.
Last year, the program served a total of more than 7,500 lunches. This year, Mustard expects they’ll serve closer to 5,000 lunches.
Although Lunch in the Park is aimed at children from low-income families — the Douglass Park site was chosen because at least 50 percent of children in the surrounding neighborhood are eligible for free or reduced school lunches — Mustard said no proof of eligibility is required and anybody can pick up a free lunch.
Sue Aufderheide decided to stop by Wednesday with her three young children after reading a newspaper article about Lunch in the Park.
“We were in the neighborhood and the kids were getting hungry, so we thought we’d check it out,” she said. “It’s neat, and when we’re done eating they can play in the park.”