HELENA — For about the past 15 years, Helena Public Schools’ free summer meals program has been feeding children in the greater Helena community while school is out for the summer.
This year, parents will be able to sign their child up for a free breakfast and/or lunch at either Memorial Park or the Lewis and Clark Library, with the option to also get meals for each weekend day.
The program will also offer opportunities for children to receive multiple meals each Monday and Thursday that they can take home to eat at Four Georgians Elementary, Warren Elementary and Sherron Park, south of Helena High School.
The Free Summer Meals program started with Memorial Park being the only location where children between the ages of 1 and 18 could get a free lunch, but in recent history the program has branched out to other locations in the Helena area, including various schools.
But like most things, the program was forced to change the way it operated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We could start giving out multi-day packages. So a family could come in and pick up more than one meal at a time. The meals were actually amazing how many we went through,” said Robert Worthy, Helena Public Schools Food Service Director. say probably three or four times the amount we usually do in the summer.”
Although as pandemic restrictions were loosened, the program returned to its original rules, Worthy noted that returning to the program’s original routine stifled the program’s growth.
“The summer program went back to pre-COVID rules and that made things challenging where people still weren’t there yet, but they still need the meals. But gas is expensive, it’s hard for people to get one meal at . once in a place. Then worked with [the Office of Public Instruction] this next — this last year, the last few months to create more locations with different kinds of service options,” Worthy said.
Worthy noted that if USDA regulations had remained the same, the program likely would have been reduced to its original setup with a single location at Memorial Park.
Earlier this year, the USDA changed some of its rules that allow rural districts to change how they distribute free summer meals to area children, such as being able to give out multiple take-home meals at once.
“The USDA, they made some changes to allow some availability based on rural or urban areas. And Helena right now is classified as rural under the definition that the USDA sets out, which then creates opportunities with us,” Worthy said.
To receive their free summer meals beginning June 12, children must be enrolled in the program at Helena Public Schools either online or on-site. More information about dates, times and locations of distributions can be found on the Helena Public Schools website.