At Jerry Burrell Park on Thursday, a dozen kids tossed around a football or shot hoops on a nearby basketball court until it was lunchtime, courtesy of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry.
In many cases, the meal they were about to enjoy was their first of the day, and in some cases, would be their only full meal.
SICM hosted its annual kick-off event for its summer meals program, which is entering its 23rd year and will run until just before Labor Day. The program provides free breakfast and lunches to kids in the city who may not have access to a nutritious meal while school’s out, and this year is using a new vendor.
All students in the Schenectady City School District qualify for free lunch, and many of them live in poverty and face food insecurity at home. In an effort to encourage nutrition and help students retain information over the summer, SICM launched the summer lunch program, which expanded last year to include breakfast at certain sites.
“We try and grow every year,” said Dave Taylor, director of the summer meals program.
Last year, the program dished out 86,000 meals from June up until Labor Day, Taylor said. He expects that number will increase this summer, as it has each year since the program started.
“That’s a clear sign people are hungry. There’s a huge need in this city for food,” he said. “And the kids look forward to it.”
On Thursday, a few dozen kids went through a line under the park pavilion, where they received a plate of turkey sloppy joe, a serving of fruit and vegetables and a carton of milk.
Most were eager to finish their plate, particularly because once they did, they could go collect a sno-cone – one of the special perks featured in the kick-off event.
The program offers meals at 18 fixed sites throughout Schenectady and at Collins Park in Scotia, and eight mobile sites, which launched four years ago, Taylor said. The mobile sites allow the organization to set up shop in neighborhoods it might not otherwise be able to serve, he said.
This year, SICM is using a new vendor to provide the food. Red Rabbit, a New York City-based company that specializes in school lunches, brings the meals up from Manhattan each day and prepares them in the kitchen at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. From there, the food is stored in heaters and served up at the designated sites for the day, Taylor said.
Red Rabbit provides healthier options than the previous vendor, Taylor said, with an emphasis on farm-to-table preparation.
The lunches are a variety of hot and cold items, while the breakfasts are served cold.
To pull off the meals program each year requires collaboration, project leaders said. That includes support from the United Way of the Greater Capital Region and the Community Development Block Grant program, the Carlilian Foundation, the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Wright Family Foundation.
In addition, SICM receives assistance from roughly 1,000 volunteers who pitch in at meal sites, often multiple times each summer. For the kick-off event, the program received additional help from the Schenectady Police Department.
A half-dozen officers mingled with kids prior to the meal, with one venturing off to throw around a football at the nearby playground. When it came time to eat, officers handed kids utensils and napkins before sending them off to find a seat.
“It allows us to interact in ways we don’t normally get to interact with people,” Assistant Chief Michael Seber said of the program.