Free food, fitness and literacy programs help fill summer gap for kids in Sacramento region

Third-grader Noelle Long paused from dipping pieces of celery into ranch sauce to beg her mom, Chelsey Long, to go to the local water park.

“Mom, can we go to Raging Waters? It’s hot today.”

Noelle, her siblings Naomi, Eliza and Hunter, and her mom sat at a long table this week in the community room at the Rancho Cordova Library. Before them lay a lunch, provided by a free summer meals program piloted by United Way. This day’s menu included turkey and cheese sandwiches on whole grain bread, celery with ranch dressing, tortilla chips with hummus, apples, and 1 percent milk.

From June through August, United Way operates 16 summer meal sites throughout the Sacramento region – including the Rancho Cordova library – where kids under age 18 can get nutritious meals at no charge.

United Way also is launching its Summer STARS program, which offers free early literacy courses and fitness activities for kids in addition to the lunches.

At the Rancho Cordova Library, the community room hummed with the sounds of kids playing with toys on a colorful rug and two volunteers handing out plastic-wrapped meals to the dozen kids in the room.

Chelsey Long sat across from her daughters, watching them eat.

“We just come once a week to the library and we end with having lunch,” Long said. “The kids like it! They usually look at the calendar and come on a day that they like the meal option.”

Noelle typically checks out books at the library and reads while eating lunch. Her current read is “The Key to Rondo” by Emily Rodda. She loves the free meal program at the library.

“I like doing this program, because then we don’t have to stay at home very much,” Noelle said.

Calvin Johnson, 26, sat at a table peeling tangerines for his daughter Mya, 6. A reggae musician and dedicated father, Johnson said that in the summertime, “school continues” for Mya.

Visiting the library once a week for books and a free meal is all a part of Mya’s journey to search for her talent and passions, her dad said.

“I’m trying to help her find her purpose and passion,” Johnson said.

The summer holidays can mean missed meals and missed learning opportunities for low-income students. United Way’s meals and educational activities aim to prevent that “summer slide.”

“This program bridges the gap between the school years, for those who rely on school meals for their primary meals for the day,” said Chris Curran, a library associate at the Rancho Cordova branch. “The library’s mission has always been to help the community learn, discover, and grow, and kids can’t learn or read if they’re hungry.”

During the summer, kids can fall behind their peers by two or three months unless they have regular access to learning opportunities to close the gap. By the fifth grade, this achievement gap compounds, and some students can fall up to three years behind their peers, according to the United Way news release.

Curran said United Way has partnered with the Rancho Cordova Library for three years.

“Our focus is ending poverty starting with school,” said Lisa Martinez, marketing director at United Way.

Since 2014, United Way has served 935,772 meals through its Healthy Meals program and the Summer Food Service program, which is in its fourth year, according to Tom Bennett, vice president of community impact.

The program’s menu includes chicken ranch pasta, blueberry parfaits, barbecue turkey wraps, and lots of fruit at the 16 meal sites.

“We serve 1,700 meals a day,” Bennett said.

According to Bennett, United Way plans to serve over 53,000 meals this summer to top last year’s 49,000.

For a listing of meal sites and hours of operation, go to https://yourlocalunitedway.org/success-story/fuel-your-summer-these-united-way-sponsored-sites.

Candice Wang, from Yale, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee interested in climate change, sustainability, socioeconomic inequality, and culture. She grew up in Connecticut.