D97 and OP-RF Food Pantry combat food stigma

Students receiving free, reduced meals harder to identify

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Some students attending District 97's Extended School Year, Summer Launch and Newcomer English Learner programs, which run from June 17 to July 12, will have one less thing to worry about this year — the stress that comes with eating lunch. 

"In mixed-income communities like Oak Park, stigma is one of the key factors in children not accessing meals during the summer," said Chris Jasculca, D97's senior director of policy, planning and communications. "Many of them would rather go hungry than be identified as being in need." 

Recently, the district partnered with the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry to provide daily breakfast and snacks to all students, regardless of need, who are enrolled in those D97 learning enrichment programs.

Jasculca said the cost of the food for students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals is paid for by the National School Lunch Program, while the food pantry and the district will split the cost of food for children enrolled in those programs who don't qualify for free and reduced meals. 

The total food cost of the program is $10,944, with the National School Lunch Program covering half of that while D97 and the food pantry each pay half of the remaining $5,893, Jasculca said.   

Michele Zurakowski, the food pantry's executive director, said this is the first time the food pantry has collaborated with D97 on a summer meals program. She said they've piloted a similar program at Oak Park and River Forest High School for the last few years. Zurakowski added that OPRF's food service provider is a vendor for the D97 program. 

"The cooperation between D200, D97 and the food pantry has been great," she said. "This is a really good model for how public-private collaboration works."

The collaboration with D97 is just one of several summer meals programs targeted to young people that the food pantry facilitates with various community partners. 

The food pantry also partners with the West Cook YMCA and local churches on its Meet Up & Eat Up program, which "happens every summer the week after Oak Park public schools go on summer break, and it ends a week before school starts," according to the food pantry's website. 

Along with partners, the food pantry offers free lunches and activities for anyone under 18.

Echoing Zurakowski, Jasculca lauded the collaboration between the district and the food pantry. 

"Through this public-private partnership, the food pantry and district believe we overcome this hurdle by meeting the needs and respecting the dignity of our most vulnerable kids," he said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this post included the incorrect date for when D97's summer enrichment programs begin. It is June 19, not June 22. Wednesday Journal regrets the error. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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