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School Summer Food Programs Are A Pandemic Idea That Lasted

Boxes of fresh produce line cafeteria tables inside an elementary school in Amboy, Illinois. Toni Fassig just finished setting up the summer food program and families are starting to trickle in.

“Good morning! Half a watermelon per family,” she says, getting pre-made meal kits ready to send out. “Do you want Bosco stick meal kits or sweet and sour chicken? Enough for two, you got two? There you go.”

So far, they’ve been giving out food to 100 kids a week, and the program is growing in the rural school district of around 700 students. Fassig says she thinks many families may not know about the program yet, and others might pass on the groceries because they believe other people are in greater need than them.

“I've had some mothers go, ‘Oh, no, we're fine. We haven't lost our jobs,’ You know, and I'm like, ‘come in and get a bag of groceries. I mean, it's all fresh produce,’” she said. “This is all taxpayer-funded.”

Lisa Moore is a teacher at Amboy who has two kids of her own. She’s picking out fresh strawberries and cucumbers. This is the first time she’s been at the free food mart and says her family has struggled a bit more financially because of the pandemic.

“It's just kind it was overwhelming when I walked in and how much you can take per child,” Moore said. “I'm okay. My husband's job was cut. So he gets like half what he used to, so there are challenges there when you have to pay for a college student.”

The number of Americans relying on local food banks increased during the pandemic, and 4 in 10 people using them were doing so for the first time.

COVID-19 forced the USDA to expand waivers for the National School Lunch Program last year, which has allowed schools to provide food to more families.

Joshua Nichols is the superintendent at Amboy. He says they saw a real need in their community for a summer food initiative.

"There are very few districts that did that. And so it's like, 'Is that okay that we've never done that?' That kind of bothers me a little bit, I mean, because we have the means to do it and we haven't done it,” said Nichols.

Every child is entitled to a full week’s worth of food they can pick up every Wednesday around lunchtime.

There are no financial qualifications, kids don’t even need to be there when families pick up the food. Lots of parents are working midday on Wednesday, so they swing by on their lunch or have babysitting grandparents stop in.

Steve is one of those grandparents picking up food with his grandson Mason. Their family has seven kids between 2 and 12 years old and he says the school’s program has been a big help.

“Very much, It gets pretty costly with seven kids, you know?” he said.

Toni Fassig and other staff have also been able to deliver food to a few families without transportation. Fassig is the head of the district’s kitchens. She spends time every week curating the produce options.

“We just started getting cucumbers and zucchinis and strawberries offered to us cantaloupe, apples, oranges, clementines, fresh potatoes,” Fassig said.

Baby carrots are a fan favorite. She says they have to make sure they’re offering a healthy selection that kids will want to eat.

“It's not nutritious until they get it in their tummy,” she said.

Food isn’t just going out, it’s also coming in from the community. Fassig takes a carton of eggs from one of the middle school custodians.

“She raises chickens and she's always trying to pawn the eggs off on me!” Fassig says as the custodian trades the eggs for a few bags of groceries and a carton of milk.

“Thank you, Toni!” she waves, headed toward the door. “You're welcome. Take a couple of packages of strawberries. Take a couple you’ve got more than one child. Take a couple of them!”

Federal food waivers are continuing through the 2021-22 school year. That means Amboy and other school districts across the country will be able to offer a similar free lunch program next year, albeit with a few minor restrictions.

As long as the funding is there, school administrators hope they can keep fighting food insecurities as families recover from the financial effects of the pandemic.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.