Billings School District 2’s free summer lunch program is more popular than ever.
“Oh, we’re seeing growth,” said Thomas Harper, director of business services for School District 2.
Between the lagging economy and a federal grant to pay for busing children to the park, Harper said the district has seen a definite increase in demand.
Lunch is served between 11:45 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at North Park, South Park, Pioneer Park, Central Park, Crow/Arrowhead Park, the Billings Boys & Girls Club and Gorham Park.
The program provides free lunches to any child up to 18 years old, regardless of income or background. All parents or caretakers need to do is bring their children. There are no eligibility forms or applications to fill out.
The food is provided through School District 2 but is paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decades-old Child Care Food Program, which reimburses the district.
Not all parks host the meals. The locations where the lunches are distributed are based on the area’s percentage of families eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that an area be 50 percent eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches to be eligible to host the program.
So in an effort to reach more children, the district received a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant, given through the Montana Office of Public Instruction, to pay to bus students from adjoining areas to the parks that serve the lunches.
Montana is one of the top five states to best provide for hungry children during the summer, according to a report from the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit advocacy group that works to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to fight hunger.
The state fed 6,600 children in 2009, up from 5,700 in 2008, the study found.
“The schools, nonprofits and communities that sponsor summer food sites are meeting a real need,” Denise Juneau, superintendent of public instruction, said in a news release Thursday. “During summer break kids should not worry about getting enough to eat.”
For that reason, Harper said the district has made a concerted effort this summer to make sure families and caregivers are made aware of the program.
“We just want folks to know about it,” he said.
Contact Rob Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1231.