If you swing by the library this summer, you might see the Lunch Bus, which the Winona Area Public Schools’ nutrition staff parks on Fifth and Johnson streets each day during June, July and August to offer free meals to children.
But the school district’s summer meal program is more than that refurbished school bus which made its first food-related rounds in 2016.
It’s a network of sites serving around 600 children each day, said WAPS nutrition director Jennifer Walters, and it’s still expanding.
“I think it helps families,” Walters said. “Meals during the summer are an added expense, so if they can take them to one of our meal sites and eat and see some friends, it’s a good day.”
The meal program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by the Minnesota Department of Education’s Food and Nutrition Service, began in Winona in 2015 with the goal of adding sites each year to meet the needs of the community.
This year, WAPS took over meal provisions for the Winona YMCA and children at the East End Recreation Center.
There are no income requirements to show up for a meal, and no registration required either.
They plan for how many meals to have on hand by looking at the day before, Walters said, or upping the number if there’s a big event in town, like Steamboat Days. On Wednesday alone, she said, staff served 283 children at Winona Middle School.
“Some days are more difficult than others,” Walters said. “If more people show up, we just make more food. At the middle school it’s not difficult because the kitchen is there.”
Beyond the middle school, East Rec, the library’s Lunch Bus and the YMCA, which is offered only for the students enrolled in its daycare, sites include Maplewood Townhomes, Washington-Kosciusko Elementary, Ridgeway Community School, the Winona Area Learning Center and Pleasant Valley Church. Dates and times can be found on the district website.
School nutrition staff work at most of the locations, except for Ridgeway and East End Rec, where recreation coordinator Lydia Boysen and her staff from the city’s park and recreation department serve the meals, following healthy guidelines from the federal government.
On July 8, East End Rec will also start serving 20 lunches a day to parents, adults and seniors thanks to $1,600 in funding from the Winona Health Foundation.
“A lot of the things people are trying to achieve with feeding youth would be more achievable if you also serve adults,” Boysen said. “They can be in that space and be an example.”
The USDA program mandates that only children are served, a restriction Boysen said is well-intentioned but can create food waste and misses the mark on family and friends eating together.
She and Walters teamed up when the usual funding source for the recreation center’s summer meals fell through, and sought a grant from Winona Health to be able to serve the adults as well. So far they’ve served 20 to 30 lunches per day at the location, she estimated.
“A lot of funding sources are not as interested in feeding adults because they ‘should be able to feed themselves,’” Boysen said. “I think that’s generally true … but it is that social aspect.”
Walters said she thinks the program runs well and continues to be fully funded. It’s an important part of ensuring kids eat healthy during the summer, and allows them to see friends too, she said.
“A lot of people make it a part of their day. Stop and have breakfast, go to the park and then they stop and have lunch,” she said. “Just the routine.”