Summer Health Lunch Bunch expands to address weekend food insecurities

Ricky and Lexie Ramos, of Elkhart, attend the free lunch program at Grace Community Church with their children Milena Ramos, 1, and Kovu Miller, 5 on Tuesday..

Summer Health Lunch Bunch expands to address weekend food insecurities. Backpack Meals Program Begins Friday.

GOSHEN — Goshen Health’s Summer Health Lunch Bunch program is partnering with Cultivate Food Rescue to provide food-filled backpacks for youth to take home during the weekend. The backpacks will be given out each week at three Goshen Community School’s free lunch locations. An additional 100 backpacks will be distributed through Elkhart Schools and 50 at Middlebury Boys & Girls Club. Backpack distribution begins Friday.

Cultivate Food Rescue rescues unused food from local restaurants and caterers in order to provide free backpacks to food insecure families throughout the weekend to ensure students have nutrition all school year long, but this year, they’re expanding to offer it over the summer, too.

“Typically, we target during the school year,” Project Coordinator Lainie Holland of Cultivate Food Rescue of South Bend said. “We call it the 68-hour gap between lunch at school on Friday and breakfast on Monday. For kids who are on free and reduced lunch, if they have food insecurity, they often don’t have food and nutrition during that weekend period.”

Cultivate will provide 300 children six meals for each weekend on a first-come first-serve basis at Pringle, Shanklin and Roxbury parks in Goshen. In total across Elkhart, St. Joseph and Marshall counties, more than 1,000 students will receive the backpacks.

“That nutritional aspect is so important because a lot of these students are eating granola bars and cereal and things that they can easily find if their parents aren’t home, or they don’t have a lot of food in the fridge,” Holland said. “These are, a lot of times, the most vulnerable in our community and we’re doing everything we can to take care of them and get food in their stomachs so they can continue to learn and grow like every kid would have the opportunity to do.”

Meals provided by Cultivate Food Rescue include a protein, a starch and a vegetable, and Holland says it’s top-quality food.

“We have volunteers in every day, twice a day that are packing these meals,” said Holland. “Sometimes we get steaks. We’ve picked up from Olive Garden fettuccini alfredo. There’s really a good variety of food.”

Meals come prepackaged and ready for the microwave.

“A lot of these kids, if they’re home by themselves on the weekend, if their parents are working, they probably don’t know how to cook or shouldn’t be cooking because they’re too young — whatever it is,” Holland said. “They just go in the microwave for five minutes so it’s easy for any kid to do and they can help their little siblings, too.”

Gracie Craig, 3, of Goshen, enjoys chocolate milk at Grace Community Church during the free lunch program on Tuesday

Summer Health Lunch Bunch through Goshen Health partners with local school systems and local community organizations to provide a community leader at free lunch sites to lead an interactive activity about health and wellness with students onsite.

In the fourth year of the program, they’re partnering with 16 summer sites through the Goshen, Elkhart, Wawasee, Wa-Nee and Warsaw school districts.

“The activities are basic topics about health and wellness,” Stacy Bowers, Goshen Health community engagement manager, said. “Teaching kids the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables, and health drink choices, getting enough exercise.”

Educators follow the same schedule so no matter which location children attend, the lessons and activities will be the same that week.

“Primarily, we talk about nutrition and physical activity,” Bower said. “One of the reasons for that is that obesity continues to be one of the top health priorities in our community. This year we’re also adding a little bit more about mental health. One week we’re going to be talking to kids about feelings, talking about what are healthy ways and what are unhealthy ways to deal with feelings.”

Last year’s Summer Lunch Bunch program reached over 3,000 students to provide education.

“There is the potential with these sites to reach lots and lots of kids, and there is great need in Elkhart County,” Bower said. “Although we have a lot of resources, Elkhart County has the highest social vulnerability index score in the state. What that means is when we look at things like poverty levels, transportation, access to food, housing, we are still a county that is very much at risk, even with all the resources that we have. There is a lot of need here, especially now that food prices are higher, gas is higher, it’s still a tough time for a lot of families.”

Community partners include the Center for Healing & Hope, Elkhart City Parks Department, Elkhart County Health Department , Elkhart County Parks Department, Goshen Farmer’s Market, Live Well Kosciusko, Medical Nutrition Therapy Department of Goshen Health, Minority Health Coalition and Purdue Extension of Elkhart and Kosciusko counties. Cultivate Food rescue is expected to drop off food backpacks at 11 a.m. at Shanklin Park, 11:30 a.m. at Roxbury Park and 11:45 a.m. at Pringle Park.

For more information about Goshen Health’s school and community nutrition education programs, visit or call 574-364-2496.

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