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Free lunches draw more in hard times

Free lunches draw more in hard times

Despite unrelenting rain, more children than ever are waiting in long lines for food through the Sch

Despite unrelenting rain, more children than ever are waiting in long lines for food through the Schenectady Inner City Ministry’s free summer lunch program.

On Friday, the program served more lunches than ever before, to 992 children. On Monday, it broke the record again, serving 1,023 lunches.

On the worst weather days, only a third of the children stay home — a sharp change from just two years ago, when most lunch sites were empty on rainy days.

“It’s incredible,” said program director Crystal Hamelink. “We’ve had rain on at least part of every day this summer, and we’re still running 10 percent ahead.”

The increase is not hurting SICM’s bottom line. The U.S. Department of Agriculture pays for the meals.

The free summer camps in the city parks have also seen a huge increase — and since the free meals are served primarily in the parks, that could account for the additional lunches.

Camp organizers said many

parents came to them this year because they could not afford to pay for summer activities.

“Parents called to ask about all their options,” said Quackenbush Pool operator Julie McKane. “People are really hesitant to send to Quackenbush because when it’s really bad weather, we have to send home. They said to me, ‘How will I get off work?’ But they hear about all we do here and they can’t believe we do it for free. They’ve said they’re really glad we’re doing it.”

The Boys and Girls Clubs run Quackenbush Pool, as well as sports, art lessons and science classes in the park, all for free. But they have only small portable pavilions for shelter.

Attendance on sunny days is 30 percent higher than last year. They’re averaging more than 130 children, up from 100 last year. Attendance at the free swimming lessons has also skyrocketed, with 35 to 40 children showing up consistently. In past years, only a few children were willing to brave the cold water every morning.

At Jerry Burrell Park, where the YMCA runs a free camp, attendance has nearly tripled to 60 children.

The free Central Park county program also grew. It admitted 100 children this year, up from 80 last year.

All that translates into more mouths to feed. SICM’s summer lunch program feeds every child at each site, without asking about their ability to pay. That means some children whose parents could afford lunch are getting free food along with those who truly need it.

But Hamelink suspects that most of the children at the inner-city sites are hungry — particularly since the increase in attendance there seems linked to an inability to attend a fee-based summer camp.

“We mostly set up sites in areas where the children qualify for free and reduced lunch [in school],” she said. “I think it probably relates to the economy. This is the first year I’ve seen so many parents coming with their children. Some of the parents have asked if we have work they can do or if there is other work we can refer them to. Parents have had their hours reduced or they’ve lost their job.”

When the program began at the end of June, one mother blessed the volunteers handing out food at Jerry Burrell Park, Hamelink said.

The woman brought her four children to the park every day that week for lunch.

“She blessed the volunteers and thanked them because it was the end of the month and she had run out of money and food,” Hamelink said.

But while she could get her children fed at the park, she couldn’t have any of the food. It’s only for children under the age of 19. Adults are referred to the food pantry.

That rule occasionally causes strife. This year, a man sent a young girl to pick up food at Quackenbush and then took the bag from her when she received it. As he began to devour the sandwich, McKane told him that only children could eat. He shoved the half-eaten sandwich into the girl’s hands and spat on McKane.

“Who are you, the police?” he demanded, before leaving with the girl. Food is supposed to be eaten on site so that organizers can be certain it is eaten by children, but the man refused to stay, according to McKane.

Such incidents are rare. At Jerry Burrell Park, adults led a long line of children from Hamilton Hill Arts Center to the lunch pavilion and then stood aside as all the youngsters waited for food. A dozen other children ran from nearby houses to join them.

Just after the food arrived, rain began to pour. The children shrieked at the cold water and jostled to try to fit under the pavilion. But not one of them left the line.

Afterward, as they sat to eat cheese and meat sandwiches, De’Aviae Keys-Burke picked at her food in disappointment. She’d been hoping for something yummy — like the hot dogs served a week ago. But she slowly ate it anyway. She had nothing else to eat, she said.

“We had to come here because it’s free lunch,” she said. “We come here every day.”

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