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Free lunches available for children in the summer

Lunch in the Park started this week at Douglass Park in Columbia. Children 18 and younger can receive a free bagged lunch Monday through Friday all summer.

The free lunches are funded by a USDA grant through the Adult and Childcare Food program, which is applied for each year.

Erin Harris, Nutrition Specialist at the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, said it costs close to $20,000 to have the program run all summer.

“It’s a lot, but every day we’re able to serve around 100 kids lunch and the benefit of that for our community is huge,” she said.

Each day several volunteers from the Voluntary Action Center help serve the lunches to the children.

Nick Foster, Executive Director at the Voluntary Action Center, said there is a hunger problem for children in Columbia and the need for free lunches is important.

“Part of what we can see is there’s an increase in poverty over time and there’s an increase in the number of kids who receive free and reduced lunch in Columbia public schools,” he said. “That number is over 50 percent now, so we can see the need increasing – there’s no question about it.”

Kevin Chavez is a single father of four young children. He was signing up his two youngest children for the WIC program when he saw the flyer for Lunch in the Park. He and his children stopped by for lunch for the first time Tuesday.

“I think it’s pretty good, the kids seems to enjoy it and it’s an easy meal for me,” he said.

Chavez said he hopes to go every day for lunch so his children can make friends and get a healthy meal.

Harris said the program promises a healthy option every time, especially for teenagers who may be home alone during the day.

“They’re not always fixing the best lunches – lots of convenience foods, fast foods – so this is another opportunity or option for them to have a healthy lunch,” she said.

Harris said there are things that could be done to help fight hunger in Columbia.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about food deserts and the need for more localized grocery stores in neighborhoods. And within this neighborhood in walking distance there’s really few options, so I think this gives another option.”

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