A healthier choice at Woodcrest’s free summer meals program

Sierra Pettersen was enjoying her favorite meal – a cheeseburger – recently with her grandmother at Woodcrest Elementary.

Megan Pearce goes for some greens, while Madi Jones awaits her turn. Photo by Elyse Kaner
Megan Pearce goes for some greens, while Madi Jones awaits her turn. Photo by Elyse Kaner

This was about the seventh time Sierra had eaten at the free-lunch program offered this summer in the school’s cafeteria.

“It allows people to come and eat without having to pay and to be able to see their friends after school has ended,” said Sierra, an incoming fourth-grader.

Started last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer food service program is available to all children ages one through 18 in the school’s area.

Breakfast and lunch are served Monday through Thursday at Woodcrest.

Woodcrest is deemed area eligible because more than 50 percent of its students are on the free and reduced lunch program.

On this particular day, 49 breakfasts were served and the lunch count was 138, the highest lunch count so far this summer, according to Christine Dahnke, lead cook for the Woodcrest summer program.

At times parents or grandparents will join their kids for lunch at a minimal cost.

The highest number of breakfasts served was 68. The program’s breakfast might consist of an egg wrap or a Belgian waffle.

Still, Dahnke would like to see more kids stop in and enjoy a free meal.

“It’s very nutritious, well-balanced,” Dahnke said. “With the economy the way it is, a lot of kids don’t get to eat three meals a day.”

Among daily lunch menu items are a turkey wrap, Italian pasta salad, beef hot dog on a bun and meatballs and mashed potato. Not to a child’s liking? A chicken caesar salad, deli turkey sandwich or peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a cheese stick are alternative offerings.

About 90 students from Woodcrest’s K- 8 Learning Ventures day care program were lined up eagerly anticipating lunch.

Some grabbed bananas, carrots and cauliflower pieces and a bag of Sun Chips to go with their burgers as they filed through the cafeteria line. Chocolate skim and white milk or fruit juice were the beverages of choice.

Three years ago, before the free lunches were available, the kids in the program brought their own lunches.

The students always have a fruit or vegetable choice, said Michele Helfenstein, Learning Ventures out of school time manager at Spring Lake Park District 16.

“There’s definitely not as much of the junk foods they were bringing from home. This is definitely a healthier choice,” she said.

The free meal program started June 11 and runs through Aug. 23. The focus is on local produce and whole grains.

Last summer, 9,500 meals were served in the program.

Lindzee Lindee, an incoming fourth-grader, was also eating at Woodcrest recently. Her grandmother Nancy Sorsoleil-Lien joined her for lunch.

“It’s so wonderful,” Sorsoleil-Lien said. “This is so convenient to come here. You don’t have to mess around with making lunch.”

Lindzee especially likes the lunches because the cooks do great work, she said.

“It fills you up so you’re not hungry,” Lindzee said.

There are no papers to fill out, no registration forms. Kids just need to show up for the free meals. Breakfast is served from 8 to 9 a.m. Lunch is served from noon to 1 p.m. Adults accompanying their children may order breakfast for $2.10 and lunch for $3.45.

Dahnke, head cook at Park Terrace, is looking forward to serving meals to District 16 students during the upcoming school year. She encourages families who think they might qualify for free and reduced lunch to fill out an application form.

“You just don’t know,” Dahnke said. “We’ve had kids at Park Terrace who didn’t know if they qualified until they filled out the form.”

Woodcrest is located at 880 Osborne Road in Fridley. For more information on the summer free lunch program, call 763-785-5528 or stop in at the school during lunch time.

Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]