• To see a full list of lunchtimes and locations, which are open daily regardless of weather conditions, visit SICM’s website.
• Follow @sicm_summerlunch2014 on Instagram to see regular photo updates of sandwiches and smiles.
Reasons to celebrate June 30 include a 20th anniversary and free food — two things loved universally.
Monday is the day Schenectady Inner City Ministry (SICM) begins its 20th annual free summer lunch program.
Each weekday this summer, 23 different locations and two mobile lunch carts will serve free lunch to kids under 18 living in Schenectady.
The carts will make six 15-minute stops along a pre-planned route. Stops include churches, schools, apartment complexes, parks and even the Front Street pool. Colorful banners announce to the neighborhood where the lunch carts will park each day.
Listing the contents of each lunch requires a lot of commas: an entree, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, beverages, a snack and milk or juice.
Rachel Curtis directs the summer lunch program at SICM. Explaining the need for the program in Schenectady, she said, “There’s an almost 51 percent child poverty rate here. Eighty percent of school-age children in Schenectady city schools qualify for reduced-priced lunches.” During the summer, school lunches aren’t available.
SICM’s program was “designed to step in for the school lunches,” Curtis said. Since diet significantly affects brain function, healthy summer lunches affect healthy performance in school, Curtis added. “We want kids going back to school nourished and ready to perform.”
Curtis said the state Education Department reimburses SICM for each meal served, but the program purchases other necessities — plastic utensils, tents and hairnets, to name a few — thanks to $5,000 in funding from the city of Schenectady and a $1,000 donation from The Golub Corporation.
SICM served almost 55,000 meals in 2013, averaging 1,111 per day. This year, Curtis expects to serve around 2,000 meals per day.
Still, Curtis knows some children would rather skip lunch than accept a free meal. “There can be stigmas attached to getting free food,” she said. In an effort to overcome this perception and increase participation, SICM is introducing a pilot program called Summer Lunch Plus, staffed by 18 new interns.
The program was born from the observation that SICM’s indoor locations didn’t draw the same lunchtime crowds as the outdoor sites, which included outdoor activities. Two interns — both of them childhood education majors — are putting together a curriculum of games, crafts and reading to add to the indoor scene.
Another new feature of the indoor sites may increase participation. SICM has received such large donations of books from local groups that “each day kids can leave with a free book or two,” Curtis says.
Curtis estimates that children participating in SICM’s lunch program are, on average, 10 years old. The two outdoor locations with pools — Quackenbush Park and Central Park — tend to draw more teenagers, said Curtis, but she’s still considering ways to reach out to teens. One long-term goal of hers is to foster mentoring relationships between older and younger children.
Between 80 and 100 volunteer groups have committed to help run this summer’s program. Each group is composed of two to five people, depending on the size of the location at which they’re serving lunch, and is responsible for one week of work. To oversee the volunteers, SICM trained 18 interns and approximately 25 site supervisors (local community members hired by SICM).
Employees of the Schenectady GE plant volunteered to fill 12 volunteer groups.
Curtis is still looking for volunteers. “We’re looking good, but since we added some new sites, we could use a little more help,” she said.
SICM wants its impact on local children to extend beyond daily nutrition. With that in mind, SICM coordinates its schedule with the Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA. If kids eating lunches catch the contagious energy of, say, a soccer game on a neighboring field, they could soon be spending more of their free time playing sports.
Curtis describes the lunch program as “a collaboration between players in the Schenectady community.”
On July 9, SICM will throw a lunch program kick-off celebration at Jerry Burrell Park.
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