By Terry Dean
As director of Oak Park's Food Pantry Michelle Zurakowski has long wanted to run a summer food program for Oak Park's low-income kids.
That was finally able to happen this summer, thanks to a federal grant the pantry received this year. Though about 75 kids, including some repeaters, have participated for far since its June 8 launch, Zurakowski had hoped to serve more. They could, in fact, serve bout 50 kids a day, she said.
The idea is to replace the meal a child who qualifies for free-or-reduced lunch might receive during the school day.
The West Cook YMCA, 255 S. Marion, is partnering with the Food Pantry as the program's host site. For an hour every weekday beginning at 12:30 in the afternoon, Food Pantry volunteers serve up healthy meals. Sometimes parents come with their kids but they aren't allowed to eat the lunches. Children under 10 years old have primarily come, though the program serves youth as old as 18.
"The kids are very pleased with it. There's one mom who comes all the time," Zurakowski said.
Funding is provided by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program, which targeting low-income youth. Oak Park students who qualify for free and reduced lunches are eligible to participate. The kids don't need to show up with anything else other than an appetite, Zurakowski says.
The menu is mostly sandwiches and salads, from chicken Caesar and Italian subs, to turkey sandwiches and flatbread pizzas. Monday's lunch is a pastrami and cheese sub. And next Tuesday's meal is the "Mrs. O'Leary corned beef sandwich." While it sounds tasty, the youngsters probably have no clue who Mrs. O'Leary was or her infamous link to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The West Cook Y agreed to provide space for program; and the Food Pantry bought its own commercial refrigerator to store lunches. The program ends on Aug. 20 but Zurakowski is already thinking about next summer.
"I've been trying to figure out a way to do this for years," she said. "For next year, I'd like to talk to people and ask them what do you need."
This summer, it's been word-of-mouth, sending out fliers and emails around town to spread the word. But attracting families is tough, Zurakowski noted, because some don't want to be identified, and privacy laws prevent those students from being publicly identified.
"People don't want to be identified because of that stigma [of being low-income]," she said. "But getting the word out and talking to people about what they need does help bring kids in. Just talking and coming in and seeing what it's all about helps to get around those stigma issues."