Last year, Crystal Hamelink had the heartbreaking task of telling a 7-year-old boy that, after feeding him for eight weeks, she wouldn’t be able to give him lunch anymore.
The SICM summer lunch program was over, even though two more weeks of summer remained.
“He looked at me like I didn’t understand anything and said, ‘Where am I supposed to eat?’ ” Hamelink recounted. “He was a regular. He would show up early and ask if we had some leftover apples because he didn’t have breakfast. It was heart-wrenching.”
She won’t be faced with that situation again. This summer, SICM will serve lunch all summer long.
The program will be funded by the USDA, which gave SICM $80,000 for lunches last year. But money was hardly the reason for the shortened program in previous years. SICM just didn’t have enough volunteers to serve lunch at the end of the summer, Hamelink said. The trouble is that many of the volunteers who serve the food are college students who must return to school by mid-August.
“We will have to look for more volunteers to deliver on this,” she said.
In the past, SICM officials figured they should focus their time and resources on the early summer months, when they had an abundance of volunteers and the largest number of hungry children.
“The number of children who eat lunch starts declining the second week of August,” Hamelink said. “So instead of seeing 800 kids a day, we’re seeing 650. That’s still an incredible number of kids.” There are a dozen sites, all in the city except for one in Collins Park, Scotia.
SICM volunteers saw many of the lunch program children at the emergency food pantry last August when the program ended, she said.
Volunteers said they see genuinely hungry children each summer — children who rely on school breakfast and lunch during the school year and whose parents do not provide enough food during vacations.
“People just don’t realize,” said Ellie Rowland, volunteer coordinator for Union Presbyterian Church. “There was a little girl at our site, she hadn’t eaten on Sunday, at least not all three meals, and on Monday she ate six hotdogs. We don’t normally give them that many but we had leftovers.”
The girl was in third grade, she said.
“Her mother was working, but it’s so hard — minimum wage just isn’t enough,” Rowland said.
Union Presbyterian Church is banding with Christ Church of the Hills in Princetown and Westminster United Presbyterian Church in Schenectady to provide volunteers for all nine weeks of lunch this summer at Yates Village.
“We’re happy we’re going to finish out the summer this year,” Rowland said. “We hate to think of even one week for them without it.”
Every lunch that is eaten by a child is reimbursed by the USDA, but SICM spends $5,000 to $10,000 every year paying for lunches that go to waste. Food must be ordered in advance, but in bad weather, some children stay home.