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Article updated: 6/21/2013 1:24 PM

Elgin summer lunch program includes play time

By Elena Ferrarin

Elgin resident Cindie Britton loves the city's summer lunch program for children -- and not just because her kids get to have nutritious meals for free.

The program also includes games and other activities at "drop-in playgrounds" set up at five of the program's nine sites, supervised by Elgin Parks and Recreation Department staff and volunteers from local churches.

"(My kids) make sure they get up and get dressed to make sure they come here," Britton said on Wednesday, as her kids were finishing their meals at Cornerstone Park. "They enjoy it. It's something they can do to stay out of trouble."

This is the program's fourth year; last year, 12,901 free lunches were served throughout the summer, Elgin Parks and Recreation Director Randy Reopelle said.

The lunches, provided by the Northern Illinois Food Bank, feature an emphasis on fruit and vegetables, Reopelle said. On Wednesday, that meant chicken tacos with cheese and green peppers, plus milk and cantaloupe.

Staff and volunteers make it a point to talk to kids about what they're eating, and why, Reopelle said.

"We're trying to educate the kids as to why they should eat those things. For example, why they shouldn't eat potato chips and flaming hot Cheetos," he said. "We don't just feed them a nutritious meal. We also hope that they go home and eat healthier."

Drop-in playground activities range from drawing to playing soccer and making wind tunnels, said Jane Marston, the site supervisor at Cornerstone Park. "We want them to have fun, but it's also educational," Marston said.

Resident Maria Zavala said she's been taking her four children to the free summer lunch program since its inception. Her oldest daughter has since stopped coming, even though at 17 she's still eligible, she said.

"She's embarrassed that her friends will see her," Zavala said. "But it's a really good thing that they do this."

Volunteers from the Salvation Army and Harvest Bible Church, Bethesda Church of God in Christ, Christ Community Church, Outreach Fellowship Christian Center and Second Baptist Church also help run the program, Reopelle said.

Among this year's program sites is Observatory Park, an addition made possible by the Kiwanis Club of Elgin, which spearheaded an initiative to install a gazebo at the park, Reopelle said.

The lunches are available through Aug. 16 to any Elgin-area child younger than 18. No registration is required.

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