Picnics in the park provide summer meals for kids

The Forest Grove Summer Food Program creates a community gathering where children can eat and play every day. And Pacific University staff and alumni are right there to help.

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Around noon, the playground equipment at Lincoln Park is abandoned.

Skateboarders leave the concrete ramps at the skate park.

Frisbee and bikes litter the grass.

It’s lunchtime.

Shesna Calkins plays mom, calling kids to the park’s picnic shelter to eat. Calkins is the student services manager for Pacific University’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders. On summer Mondays, she also rides herd on a group of volunteers who serve lunch as part of the Forest Grove Summer Food Program.

Folks from area churches, from Pacific, and even several young people who routinely eat in the park help the picnickers wash their hands, grab brown bags and navigate the line, picking up milk and sandwiches, carrots and apples.

Across the country, schools receive money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide free summer meals to children in areas with a high percentage of low-income families. Traditionally, those meals take place in the quiet cafeterias of otherwise empty schools—and in less-than-urban regions, they tend not to draw a big crowd.

Some communities, like Forest Grove, have taken a new approach: Instead of trying to lure kids to school during their vacation, they take the food to the children.

Alice Beggs ’99 is the homeless liaison for the Forest Grove School District and one of the people who helped move the city’s Summer Food Program outside.

“We thought, ‘There’s got to be a way that we could add to that to make something fun,’” she said.

She worked with the school district’s food services provider, with other communities that had taken their summer food to the park, with local churches, and with the Washington County Commission on Children and Families. The first year, they served lunch for a half an hour in one local park and offered an hour of activity after the meal.

In the six years since it started, the program has only grown. It now takes place in three Forest Grove parks: Lincoln and Rose Grove parks in Forest Grove, and Harleman Park in Cornelius.

Meals are free for any child age 1 to 18. There’s no signing up, no income eligibility: The idea is to offer a welcoming, community-wide event. The more popular the lunches, the more likely it is that the kids who need it most get fed.

The district provides the meals Mondays through Thursdays in June and July, and each site tries to add Friday meals based on donations. Pacific’s food services provider, ARAMARK, has donated food for Fridays at Lincoln and Harleman parks. In addition, Fuddruckers donated 1,800 meals, which will allow the program to serve barbecued hamburgers in August after the school district meals end; ARAMARK volunteers are doing the grilling for those meals.

On any given day, some 200 children might get a free lunch. More could: The district will make however many lunches are needed, and the only thing stopping expansion to other neighborhoods is a need for dedicated volunteers.

In addition to food, the summer program also provides activities at the parks for children. In years past, all the activities have been planned and led by volunteers. The fire department might bring a fire truck one day; the library might stop by to share a book another day. Coaches may put on a quick soccer camp, or a resident artist might host an arts and crafts afternoon. This year, the Boys & Girls Club has taken over coordination of the activities, but community volunteers still are welcome.

“It’s giving an opportunity to the broader community to come together, to be serving together and collaborating together,” said Karen Mossbarger, who helps Beggs keep the program organized.