Since June 20, Victoria Hoffman and Maria Dellanina, two interns from Dominican University, have been at St. John Lutheran Church from 11 a.m. through 1:30 p.m., Monday through Friday to hand out free, nutritional lunches to any child under 18 years old who shows up, but so far only a handful of kids have shown up.

The reason the lunches are free is that U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) offers them at schools at no cost or a very low cost (30 cents) if the total income of their families falls below a designated threshold. Because 40% of families fall into that category on the north side of Forest Park — the part of town that Grant White School serves — the USDA is willing to fund the distribution of lunches during the summer as well as from September through May in what they call an “open program,” meaning that any child who comes through the door from anywhere in town is given a lunch, no questions asked and no need to present a W2 from the parents proving eligibility.

The West Cook YMCA in Oak Park has housed the program for the past two years, but this year the Y couldn’t because of renovations in their building. Needing to find a new location at which to distribute the meals, Elizabeth Lopez, the youth development director at the Y, reached out to St. John in early April to see if they would be willing to host. St. John is only two blocks south of Grant White School.

St. John’s council approved the cooperative venture on May 16. 

“When there is an opportunity to serve and impact our community,” explained Matthew Huner, St. John’s president, “we as a congregation want to jump on that opportunity.”

Right now, in spite of all of the good will exhibited by so many organizations, the low turnout proves that the saying “if you serve it, they will come” is not always true. Dellanina and Hoffman reported that as of the end of June, the number of kids who come each day is only around four.

Michele Zurakowski, director of the OP-RF Food Pantry, the nonprofit that administers the program and handles outreach to promote the open site to neighboring communities, has a theory about the low turnout. 

“The YMCA’s moving the program to St. John has presented a different kind of challenge as far as getting the word out. It wasn’t until the middle of May that we knew the church would be able to house the program, and therefore the marketing piece has been a little delayed.”

Another factor keeping hungry children from taking advantage of the no-cost nutrition, she speculates, is the stigma attached to being poor. 

“It’s very hard for some of these kids to admit to whoever may be watching,” she said, “that they need help with something as basic as food.”

To address that barrier and simply to make the experience more fun, Adriana Riano, program coordinator at the OP-RF Food Pantry, has put together a package of activities, including demonstrations on how to make smoothies and pizza by the Dominican interns and a story time led by Gina Carfagno from the Forest Park Public Library.

In other words, it is taking a virtual village to feed a child. The USDA represents the federal government. The Illinois State Board of Education administers it in Illinois, following regulations from the USDA. The Archdiocese of Chicago through Food Service Providers acts as the “sponsor,” which hires the vendor who provides the actual meals every day. The Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry handles all the planning, staffing, managing and programming. This summer the two interns come from Dominican University, and St. John is providing the space.

Although disappointed by the numbers so far, Dellanina feels good about the service the program is providing. Every lunch includes milk, a portion of fruit, some sort of protein and a vegetable. The programming is provided to make the experience more fun for the children, but there’s a third non-quantifiable element that may not be obvious to the casual observer. 

That element involves human interaction, a word of encouragement, caring relationships.

She recalled a 12-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy who were in charge of taking care of their two-month-old twin brother and sister while their parents were away at work. 

“They were great with their younger siblings,” Dellanina recalled. “The older brother and sister thanked us for feeding them so that their day could be easier. Quite mature older siblings.”

The Summer Feeding Program also has a site at Beye School on the northeast side of Oak Park, where the demographics also qualify the site as an open program.

For more information, call St. John Lutheran Church at 708-366-3226 or Elizabeth Lopez at the YMCA, 708-434-0230.

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