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Summer lunch program serves 400-plus per day

Whenever it's taco day, Longfellow Elementary can get a bit crowded. Anything with tacos is always a favorite for kids who come to eat at the summer food service program, said Debra Lunder, the Longfellow food service manager. The lunch program, ...

Mary Jo Hoeltzner serves a kid lunch on Thursday at Longfellow Elementary School in Mitchell. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Mary Jo Hoeltzner serves a kid lunch on Thursday at Longfellow Elementary School in Mitchell. (Matt Gade/Republic)

Whenever it's taco day, Longfellow Elementary can get a bit crowded.

Anything with tacos is always a favorite for kids who come to eat at the summer food service program, said Debra Lunder, the Longfellow food service manager.

The lunch program, which runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, is held at Longfellow Elementary School. It is a free lunch service for all children younger than 18, providing meals in low-income areas when school is not in session.

Lunder, who has been with the program since it started 14 years ago, said each year the summer lunch program continues to grow. And so far this year, an average of 426 kids come for a free meal each day, exceeding last year's average of 360.

The program runs from May 31 to July 29, and Lunder said the average might drop a little more starting in July when families go on vacation.

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But even then, this summer might be one of the program's "best years," according to Leann Carmody, the food services director for the Mitchell School District.

"It's a very positive thing for the community and for the kids to have," Carmody said. "Some kids come just to socialize ... It makes a big difference."

The program is federally funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered in South Dakota by the Department of Education.

There are 95 sites in South Dakota, including Mitchell. To qualify for the program, sponsors must first determine if it serves a low-income area. If more than 50 percent of the area qualifies for free or reduced meals each month, then the area can serve as a lunch site offering free meals for children 18 and under.

Tacos aren't the only favorite. Lunder said chicken fried steak, pizza, and hot dogs are popular, too. Even on the days when favorite meals are served, Lunder said there is still enough seating.

This year, she had 12 extra tables set up, allowing seating for 288 at one time.

It wasn't always like that. Lunder recalls when there were a lot fewer kids coming by for free meals.

"When we started, the first couple years, we were thrilled if we fed 125 kids each day ..." Lunder said. "The word gets around and we get a few more and a few more,."

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Another change Lunder has seen over the years involves the amount of fruits and vegetables available for the kids.

"We are on a mission to feed the kids healthier," Lunder said. "The salad bar is amazing. Back in the day, we just had maybe apples and oranges. Now we have so many fruits available."

The lunch program feeds not only kids, but adults too. Lunder said adults can purchase a meal for $4. And kids who are still hungry, can purchase seconds for $1. But Lunder said, most of the kids are pretty full from their first meal.

Even with less than a month left of the program this summer, Lunder said kids will continue to come until the last day on July 29. She said maintenance needs the few remaining weeks before school is back in session to clean and make any repairs in the lunch area of Longfellow.

With a four-person staff, and one part-timer, Lunder said the goal is simply to feed kids.

"The kids cannot possibly walk away hungry," she said.

Children 18 and younger are able to receive free lunch on at Longfellow elementary school. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Children 18 and younger are able to receive free lunch on at Longfellow elementary school. (Matt Gade/Republic)

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