How suburban groups fill hunger gap over summer vacation
For most folks, a park gazebo is a nice place to gather outdoors with friends and family, or simply to seek shade on a sunny day.
But the new gazebo at Mundelein's Gordon Ray Park was built with a different purpose.
The simple, wooden structure was donated to the Mundelein Park and Recreation District so local volunteers could have someplace to feed free lunches to needy children during the summer.
The effort is called Mundelein LUNCH, which stands for Local United Network to Combat Hunger.
"We don't know what they're eating at home," said Susan Zentz, a coordinator with Mundelein LUNCH. "Without the lunches that we give out in the summer, some of the children might not have a nutritious meal each day."
Mundelein LUNCH isn't the only suburban group feeding kids this time of year. Free lunches -- and sometimes breakfasts, too -- can be had in Carol Stream, Elgin, Palatine and other towns.
The meals are provided by groups including the Northern Illinois Food Bank and served by volunteers like those in Mundelein. Costs are covered by the U.S. Agriculture Department's Summer Food Service Program.
Mundelein resident Jennifer Erenberg brought her four children, ages 7 to 14, to Gordon Ray Park last week for lunch. After getting squirts of antibacterial gel on their hands from a volunteer, the kids picked up their meals at the gazebo and then ate together on a nearby bench.
Erenberg is grateful the program exists.
"It's needed in this community," she said.
Hunger a real issue
Food insecurity is a real issue for many children when school lets out for the summer. Kids who get free or discounted breakfasts or lunches at school lose that access to nutritious meals.
That's where the USDA comes in. With the help of community groups like Mundelein LUNCH, the agency plans to serve more than 200 million free meals to children nationwide this summer.
"(The) USDA's summer meal programs ensure that kids and teens have consistent access to healthy meals at no cost during the summer months and provide a safe, nourishing environment for kids to learn and grow," said Cindy Long, deputy administrator of the child nutrition programs run by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.
Anyone 18 or younger can be fed. Packaged in cardboard boxes, meals usually consist of a sandwich, fresh fruit and milk. The only rule is that meals must be eaten on-site.
Mundelein LUNCH launched in 2014 using a gazebo at Hanrahan Park. That first summer, the group gave away 2,621 lunches, said the Rev. Kris Hewitt, pastor at Ivanhoe Congregational Church.
The program expanded in 2015 to Hickory Park. Between both sites, the group served 4,056 lunches that summer.
The total rose to more than 5,000 lunches in 2016.
"There's really a need out there," park district Executive Director Margaret Resnick said.
But even though it drew dozens of kids daily, Hickory Park wasn't a perfect location for the program.
The park doesn't have a gazebo, so neither the kids eating there nor the volunteers had shelter from rain or heat, Resnick said. Food was served beneath shade trees.
And getting to that spot required walking across a big field, which wasn't easy for volunteers toting coolers or parents pushing strollers.
Building the gazebo
Mundelein LUNCH offered to construct a shelter at Hickory Park, but district officials suggested moving the second operation to Gordon Ray Park and building a gazebo there.
Located on Rays Lane east of Diamond Lake Road, Gordon Ray Park made a better site because it's closer to where many of the participating children live, Resnick said. Additionally, the gazebo would be near a sidewalk and park paths for easy access.
The group agreed, and the four-post structure was professionally built atop a cement pad in May.
"I don't know that it would have happened without them," Resnick said.
Service has begun
Summer meal programs operate at schools, churches, libraries and community centers across the suburbs. Many began serving kids last week.
At the Hanover Township Izaak Walton Center, 899 Jay St. in Elgin, about 30 kids showed up for lunch each day last week.
That's comparable to last summer's daily average, said Tom Kuttenberg, the township's director of community and government relations.
Mundelein LUNCH began its summer service the same day, at both Gordon Ray and Hanrahan parks.
Gerarda Garcia of Mundelein brought her two young sons, two nieces and her mother to Gordon Ray Park for lunch.
Seated at a picnic table in the shade of a large tree, she watched the children enjoy turkey-and-cheese sandwiches, nectarines and bite-sized tomatoes.
She's thankful the kids have healthy meals to eat.
Zentz is happy to help.
"That's why we're there," she said.
"That's why we're doing it."