HELENA — For about the last 15 years, Helena Public School's 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 up their child to get a free breakfast and/or lunch at either Memorial Park or the Lewis and Clark Library, with an option to get meals for each weekend day as well.
The program will also offer options 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 lone 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 around the Helena area including various schools.
However, like most things, the program was forced to change the way it operated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were able to start handing out multi-day packs. So, a family could come to the site and pick up more than one meal at a time. The meals, actually, it was amazing how many we were going through,” said Robert Worthy, Helena Public Schools Food Service Director. “I'd say probably three or four times the amount we usually do in the summertime.”
Though as pandemic restrictions loosened, the program reverted back to its original rules, Worthy noted the revert to the program's original routine stifled the program's growth.
"The summer program went back to pre-COVID regulations and it made things challenging where people still weren't there yet, but they still need the meals. But the gas is expensive, it's hard for people to make it to eat one meal at a time at a site. So, worked with [the Office of Public Instruction] this next — this last year, last few months to create multiple locations with different kinds of service options," said Worthy.
Worthy noted that had the United States Department of Agriculture's regulations stayed the same, the program likely would have pared down to its original setup with a single location at Memorial Park.
Earlier this year, the USDA changed some of its regulations allowing rural communities to change how they distribute free summer meals to area children, like being able to give out multiple meals at once to take home.
"The USDA, they made some changes to allow certain availability based upon rural or urban sites. And Helena is right now classified as a rural site under the definition the USDA set forth, which then creates opportunities with us,” said Worthy.
In order to receive their free summer meals starting June 12, kids must be signed up for the program with Helena Public Schools either online or at the site. More information on dates, times and locations of distributions can be found on the Helena Public Schools website.