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From Hammond and East Chicago to Valparaiso and Michigan City, more than 100 locations in Northwest Indiana will serve up free meals this summer to children ages 18 and younger.

Schools, churches and other community centers participating in the 2019 Summer Food Service Program will prepare breakfast, lunch and even snacks in some locations for eligible communities.

The program, established more than 40 years ago, seeks to bring nutritious meals and snacks to students in the summer months when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs are not offered.

Area food services departments are seeking to spread awareness of the free program. Only 15% of students who rely on school lunches for regular meals take advantage of the summer service, according to the national No Kid Hungry Campaign.

Indiana summer meal programs served nearly 2.7 million meals last year, according to the state Department of Education.

Nearly 250 school and community organizations statewide participate in the program, including groups like the School City of Hammond, which has participated in the Summer Food Service Program since at least the early 1980s.

In Hammond, students at elementaries across the district are served up a rotating menu of “Surf Board Sushi Sandwiches,” “Beach Party Sriracha Chicken Wraps,” “Flippity Flop Tuna Sandwiches” and more. Because of its federal sponsorship, Summer Food Service Program locations are open to any child under 18 regardless of residency or school enrollment.

For example, Hammond Director of Food and Nutrition Services Christine Clarahan said, a student from Illinois could take advantage of free meal opportunities in Hammond and vice versa.

The School City of Hammond — which recently won the USDA’s Silver Turnip the Beet Award for outstanding summer meals — served more than 58,000 meals last year, Clarahan said.

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Because sponsors are reimbursed by the USDA, there are a few restrictions in the federal program. Kids cannot take their meals off of the serving center’s property and adults generally cannot partake in their own meal.

However, some summer meal providers, like locations sponsored by the School City of Hobart, allow accompanying parents to purchase a meal. For $4 in Hobart, parents can join in on the district’s rotating menu of chef salads, ham and cheese subs, "Make Your Own" pizzas and more.

Hobart Food Service Director Nancy Smith estimates the district serves up about 800 meals a day. She said Hobart’s program — bringing meals to area schools and parks via three mobile food trucks — not only provides children with a healthy meal, but plays a role in bringing the community together.

In addition to its regular daily breakfast and lunch stops, the Hobart program also puts on regular Taco Tuesday nights in Festival Park with free meals and entertainment ranging from musical performances to magic shows.

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At Irving Elementary in Hammond last week, families had the opportunity to meet the district’s transportation director during and learn about their students’ bus routes as well as take advantage of a simple cooking lessons from Jacqueline Boynes of the Purdue Extension’s Nutrition Education Program.

“The program’s intention is to feed kids when school is out,” Smith said. “But it provides so much more for the community than just the meals.”

Among the Northwest Indiana communities served this summer are: East Chicago, Gary, Griffith, Hammond, Hobart, Lake Station, Merrillville and Whiting in Lake County; Portage and Valparaiso in Porter County; LaPorte, Michigan City and New Carlisle in LaPorte County; Brook, Goodland and Kentland in Newton County; and Rensselaer and Remington in Jasper County.

Meal offerings, times and dates vary by location. A text service provided by No Kid Hungry in partnership with the USDA helps families across the country connect with the nearest summer meal provider within the federal Summer Food Service Program. Text "Food" to 877-877 to find the location closest to you.

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Education Reporter

Carley Lanich covers education in Lake County and throughout the Region. She comes to Northwest Indiana from Indianapolis and is an IU-Bloomington grad.