Jul. 9—Byers Avenue United Methodist Church is partnering with the Joplin School District to fill the food gap for children through a free summer lunch program.
"I heard about the program from One Joplin, and I thought it was a good way for our church to get involved," said Chuck Kralik, the church's pastor. "We've got plenty of space in our building to be able to do this. One of the things that just breaks my heart is to think of kids not having enough to eat."
Free summer lunches are open to any child 18 and younger, and children don't have to be a Joplin student to qualify, according to Rick Kenkel, director of child nutrition for the Joplin School District.
The free meal needs to be eaten onsite at all locations to ensure that children are getting the meals themselves. Previously, the school district had a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow drive-thru distribution during the pandemic. But that waiver has now ended, Kenkel said, and children will have to eat the meals on location, rather than taking them home.
The school district is offering free summer lunches at three locations this year:
—Byers Avenue United Methodist Church, 1730 Byers Ave. Meal distribution will be from noon to 12:30 p.m., while supplies last, on Tuesdays and Thursdays until Aug. 9.
—the Joplin Public Library. 1901 E. 20th St., meal distribution will be from 11 a.m. to noon, while supplies last, weekdays until Aug. 12.
—West Central Elementary. In partnership with the Joplin Family YMCA, meals are also served at the school starting July 11 to Aug. 18, on Monday through Friday. Breakfast is from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., and lunch is from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
The menu for summer lunches typically consists of foods like pizza, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, hamburgers, orange chicken, chicken tenders and hot dogs — all things kids love to eat, Kenkel said.
"I believe there is food insecurity in our community, with a district percentage of around 60% (of students eligible for) free and reduced meals," Kenkel said. "I do see the need. That's why we're trying to partner with Byers (Avenue Church) and see if we can't do a little more community outreach than just in one of our school facilities."
Kenkel said it's vitally important to keep kids fed and nourished when school drops off in the months of June and July. He thinks one of the main reasons the USDA started the summer lunch program is the lack of nutritious meals over the summer, especially for struggling families.
History in community
Apart from the public library, this is the first year the district has partnered with a community organization like Byers Avenue United Methodist Church.
For Kralik, he knows how crucial the gap between the end of summer school and the beginning of the new school year is for meals in Joplin. He hopes this program will help bridge that gap.
Byers Avenue United Methodist Church has a history of working with community groups. It holds an annual July 4 pie sale, with benefits going to mission partners and outreach programs. This fundraiser sold more than 900 pies in 2021, with proceeds going to God's Resort, Watered Gardens and other organizations.
While the church has a history of raising money to help community organizations, Kralik said they have started trying to partner with community groups to offer assistance other than money. COVID-19 has somewhat delayed those plans, but their goal is to make connections with those agencies and serve any way they can, he said. The school district's summer lunch program is a great opportunity to do that, he added.
While the school district and USDA provide the food, the church provides the space and volunteers to supervise. Kralik said a recent Facebook post about the program had 64 shares, and he anticipates a big need that could be filled.
Kralik said he looks forward to providing the opportunity to talk and get to know people in the community.
"We're attempting to be the hands and feet of Jesus, serving people where they are," Kralik said. "In the Bible, Jesus often fed people and ministered to their physical needs."
Since this is the first time a Joplin church has been involved with the summer lunch program, Kralik hopes it leads to growth in programs that feed hungry children.
"What I'm really hoping is that we can be a model of what this could be," Kralik said. "Maybe in future years we'd have other churches or agencies be willing to do the same thing because we're just one area of town."