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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

When School Cafeterias Close, Milwaukee Groups Feed Local Kids

Rachel Morello
Salvation Army volunteers bag lunches in Red Arrow Park. The organization, along with other Milwaukee groups including the Hunger Task Force, MPS and Milwaukee Recreation, work together during the summer to provide meals for kids.

For most kids, summer is the best time of year: school’s out, the sun is shining and days are free and open. But for many little ones in and around Milwaukee, summer also means less stability, particularly when it comes to food.

That’s why community groups have stepped in to provide meals when school cafeterias close.

Many of Milwaukee’s summer meal programs start at the Hunger Task Force. At a recent event at headquarters, executive director Sherrie Tussler directed volunteers where to set up signs that point families toward free meals.

“We’re going to be in parks, we’re going to be in schools, we’re going to be at youth service organizations, we’re going to be anywhere where there is water or basketball, and we’re going to be there for the kids,” she said.

Tussler knows there are plenty of kids here who need decent meals. According to a study by the Economic Innovation Group, Milwaukee is the seventh “most distressed city” in America.

And one place distress shows itself is in nutrition.

During the school year, there are solid supports in place to help feed kids. Federal poverty rules demand that every kid in the Milwaukee Public Schools system has access to free breakfast and lunchwhen school is in session.

But when summer comes, volunteers step up.

The Hunger Task Force, with some funding from the USDA and businesses such as Kohl’s, collects and distributes food to community groups. Then they assemble meals for kids. 

Aproned volunteers stuff bologna sandwiches into plastic baggies at Red Arrow Park downtown. Groups like the Salvation Army host these marathon assembly line sessions in local parks and other gathering spaces.

In a matter of hours, the volunteers package hundreds of meals. Last summer, they fed 83,000 kids, and the number is expected to rise to 90,000 this summer.

Credit Rachel Morello
A sign outside MPS' Hawley Environmental School lets families know their kids can access free meals inside this summer.

The food is then transported to the places where those kids spend their summer months - playgrounds and summer camps.

MPS Nutrition staff is also working during the summer months, to help feed kids at district camps, like the one taking place at Hawley Environmental School. 

Four and five-year-olds kneel at tables in the cafeteria, so they can see across the room. These campers eat three meals a day here: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Parent Dion Baldwin looks on from the doorway, as his six-year-old son plops down at a table for lunch. Baldwin says he appreciates that his son has some consistency in his learning and eating schedules. 

“Me and his mother, we both work full-time, consistent jobs, working long hours,” Baldwin explains. “It’s not a major issue, but it does help out.”

According to camp director Gena Stezala, adding meals to the calendar draws many parents to Milwaukee Recreation’s summer camps.

“There are kids, I think, that don’t eat at home, or couldn’t eat at home, and it is guaranteed here,” Stezala says. “This is part of the predictability that we offer. They know exactly what’s going to happen. They know they’re going to eat, they know they’re taken care of, they know they have trustworthy adults that are taking care of them.”

“It’s a safe place for kids to be in a city that isn’t always safe for them,” she adds.

Even though summer is already underway, families can still sign up for summer camp or playground care through the Milwaukee Recreation website. There, parents can also find places in their neighborhood where the kids could grab a bag lunch, in case they might otherwise go without a meal. 

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