Andrew Dys

Summertime tradition for kids: Free time and free lunches across this land

The miracle rolled into the parking lot at Market Place apartments. About 30 kids waited for what is given by every one of us who pays taxes to Uncle Sam.

A refrigerated summer miracle, U.S. Department of Agriculture free lunch, from a truck driven by a grandmother named Felecia Brown with 18-year-old J.B. Feely and 15-year-old Charnice Jones providing the labor.

The first child in line was Antonio Mann, 7. Keondre Dunn, 9 years old and sharp, sat next to him, opened his lunch, and said aloud:

"Sandwich, looks like turkey, grape juice, applesauce, cheese, milk," Keondre said. "A good one."

That opening to lunch happened in York and Chester counties Tuesday about 7,500 times at more than 180 sites. Lunches will be delivered until Aug. 15, Mondays through Fridays, from Great Falls to Chester, Hickory Grove to Fort Mill. At park shelters and day cares and apartment parking lots and community centers.

The federal summer lunch program has been around York County for 24 years, and around the country since 1969. All sites have to be near a school that has at least half the students during the year eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Kids just like I was, all those years ago.

"It's a great program," said Susan Coggins, who has run the area summer lunch for years. "Any child under 18 can get lunch. Anyone. It doesn't matter what they look like, where they come from."

The food has to be eaten right there, on site. It has to be for kids.

Last year in York and Chester counties alone, almost 370,000 lunches were served. To be exact, 369,360. The program office knows the number because every lunch is documented, signed for, eaten right there. There is no waste. None.

"Our phone has been ringing off the hook, with people asking where we will be this year," Coggins said.

The property manager at Market Place, Jennifer Clea, said she's heard working parents say that the lunch helps them stretch a hard-earned dollar.

Almost 300 part-time summer lunch program workers spend two hours a day to package, deliver and receive the food in the two counties. Monday was the first day this year, and workers hustled to gauge how many each site would need so that Tuesday there was enough lunches for each stop.

Ella Jaggers, a lunch worker at Market Place, said things to kids that make a heart sing: "Now sit down there, baby, eat your lunch. It's good."

And the kids did sit down and eat, and it was good.

There weren't enough lunches for Market Place, so a program monitor named Thelma White -- a teacher during the year whose job it was Tuesday to document deliveries at several sites -- made sure more lunches were sent so all kids could get fed.

A few minutes later, about a mile away at The Glen apartments, the miracle happened again. The kids waited, the truck drove up. The lunches came off to a worker named Shericka Miles.

"I've done this for six years," said Brown the truck driver. "I've seen how it matters."

I saw it, too. The kids ate every bite.

Nationwide last year, the USDA spent $285 million of your dollars on 118 million meals. The United States has just more than 300 million people in it.

So for about a dollar apiece, all of us helped serve a country's kids lunch.

Just a buck a person.

Seems like a bargain.

WANT TO PARTICIPATE?

York and Chester counties have more than 180 drop-off spots for the USDA children's summer food program. For information or to find the location nearest you, call 909-7511.

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