A child's hand hold's a half-eaten sandwich, with an unopened container of applesauce
A child eats dinner at a meal site located by an apartment complex in Marlborough Heights. At any of these sites, children can usually expect a fresh meal featuring meat, vegetables, grains and milk. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

With the arrival of summer, children in Kansas City are rejoicing at the warm weather and long-awaited pool days. But while kids celebrate, many parents quietly worry about the cost of food as the close of the school year means an end to school lunches and low-cost meals for their children.

In response, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) encourages parents to find the nearest summer food site for free kids food, where any child under the age of 18 can get breakfast, lunch and dinner. DHSS has shared an online map where parents can see all nearby locations and find their hours and meals served. Parents living in Kansas can use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s map.

Free kids food is available for any child in Kansas City this summer

Any child who shows up at any of the sites will receive summer food for free, no questions asked, according to DHSS bureau chief of community food and nutrition assistance Sarah Walker. There are no income or residency requirements, and volunteers collect no information from children who show up. 

Appropriate food is sometimes available for young children, but typically the sites have no baby food or formula for infants and toddlers. If parents are having trouble affording food for young children, Walker said that food banks or government welfare programs will be better resourced to provide baby food and formula.

For parents of undocumented children who are concerned that using these resources could put them at risk of incarceration or deportation, Walker emphasized that no documents or identification are required, and no information will be collected or distributed by volunteers about anyone who receives a meal.

“It’s for all socioeconomic statuses, and that’s why we take no information and we don’t screen,” Walker said. “We don’t ever want anybody to feel like it’s anything other than what its intent is, which is to feed the kids.”

People aged 18–21 who have a disability are also eligible to receive a meal.

Free kids food sites are usually in churches, schools and libraries

As of June 3, about 40 sites are operating in Jackson County alone, and a handful in each of the surrounding counties. Walker said more locations will be added in the coming weeks, but the locations won’t be posted to the map until after they’ve started distributing food.

Parents can expect free summer food to be similar to a school lunch. They vary by location, but most serve meals that include sandwiches, salads and wraps. The map displays which meals are served and what times, and different locations serve breakfast, lunch, a snack or supper. Meals must meet nutritional standards set by the DHSS, which include grains, milk, meat and fruits or vegetables.

Sites in Kansas City include local libraries, churches, parks, apartment buildings and hospitals. The department tries to choose locations that are close to home and away from dangerous traffic. Tables are set up to eat, and children will find activities like painting, dancing, chess, sports or a volunteer reader. That way, Walker said, the meal doesn’t necessarily feel like a “bread line” but more like a summertime activity that also happens to serve food.

Parents are not required to accompany children if they are old enough to come by themselves, but they should not expect their children to be supervised by volunteers.

Summer meal sponsors depend on volunteer aid

Meal sites depend heavily on volunteers, Walker said. If anyone wants to help, they can contact the summer meal sponsors directly. Volunteers may serve or prepare food, or assist with the activities on site, such as reading to children or overseeing a painting class.

Walker recommended against donating food, saying that cash donations are more practical.

“While most of us probably wouldn’t have a problem with Farmer John donating a whole truckload of tomatoes, the USDA might ask, ‘Where did those tomatoes come from?’” Walker said. “Sometimes the donation of your time is actually more valuable to them than a food item.”

And for anyone who worries that they aren’t needy enough to use this resource, Walker said that should never be anyone’s concern.

The USDA reimburses the summer meal program for as many meals as they provide, meaning that there is no way for these sponsors to run out of meals. Families should not feel as if their child’s meal is taking away from someone else’s meal, Walker said.

“Those sponsors are eligible to serve every child that meets the age requirement, so they’re not taking from someone else, they’re actually contributing to growing the program,” she said.

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....