The pavilion in Douglass Park offers shade to volunteers who arrive daily by 10:30 a.m. By 10:45, coolers of deli sandwiches, juices, milk and fruits are delivered by Smithton Middle School cafeteria staff, and after organizing the stacks of napkins and white paper bags, it is 11:30 a.m.: time to serve the first wave of Columbia children a free lunch.
Thursday’s meal consisted of roast beef sandwiches, carrots with ranch dip, a banana and a bag of trail mix. Older children helped the young ones with opening the difficult mayonnaise and mustard packets and advised them on how to best spread the condiments. After the meal, young diners spun Hula-Hoops and made foam picture frames with the Columbia Girl Scouts. As the day grew hottest at 1 p.m., they made their way home.
Lunch in the Park is held in Douglass Park every weekday and is well into its seventh year. Program coordinator Cindy Mustard believes the work she and the volunteers do is needed in the community.
“Most of the kids coming here are low-income,” she said. “We’re here to make sure they have something healthy available to eat.”
During the school year, the National School Lunch Program provides about 16 million students free lunches, but once the school year ends, the demand for affordable and healthy food remains.
More than 30 percent of Columbia students qualified for free or reduced lunch last year, which means that up to 5,000 students in Columbia could be at risk of hunger in the summer. Lunch in the Park, a collaborative effort of Columbia’s Parks and Recreation, Volunteer Action Center and the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, tries to eliminate such a risk.
“In the past we’ve had kids tell us that the last time they ate was the lunch the day before,” said Mary Martin, the Public Health Manager for the Health Department, and co-coordinator of Lunch in the Park. “Some kids come in with summer programs or come with their parents, but some of these kids come on their own.”
Lunch in the Park not only feeds its participants, but educates them on dietary facts and offers tips for healthy eating.
“We have Fruits and Vegetable Fridays,” Martin said of an initiative to introduce children to healthy-but-tasty foods such as kiwis, strawberries and sweet peppers. “And it works well in our effort to combat obesity.”
Attendance has been steadily increasing since the program started June 11, serving over 70 meals Thursday. In 2003, Lunch in the Park served over 7,000 meals to the community, but is expecting to serve a more modest 5,800 meals this summer.
“Once summer school ends, we’ll increase to more than 100 kids a day,” Mustard said. “It’s a walk-in program, and we think more kids will be coming down.”
Lunch in the Park also works to bring in educational programming that will draw more students. The Department of Conservation comes every Tuesday to introduce children to natural issues, and Columbia Girl Scouts come every Thursday to coordinate crafts and fun activities.
Starting this Monday, the public library’s book bus will be coming to promote recreational reading, and Mustard hopes more organizations will volunteer to help the program.
“We had some players from the Mizzou football team come last year,” she said. “We’d like to have more things like that in our program.”
Though Lunch in the Park receives its funding through the Department of Agriculture, it relies heavily on community support and volunteers to function day-to-day.
“The volunteers are the life blood,” Martin said. “The most they can get out of this is a free lunch, but we couldn’t do it without them.”
The Voluntary Action Center coordinates volunteers from various Columbia organizations but also gets help from individual Columbia residents.
Molly Read will be a sophomore at MU. She sees her volunteering as an opportunity.
“It’s important to give back to the community,” Read said. “I want to teach so this is great for me.”
Michael Frost read about the program in the paper four years ago, and this is his fourth summer of volunteering.
“Helping the kids makes me feel better,” Frost said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
Frost also said that he thinks the program needs to expand through Columbia.
“We need more awareness of needy children,” he said. “People need to write the president to get more money for the USDA.”