BILLINGS — Each year, many students in Billings rely on the food that they receive through the school lunch programs. In fact, many qualify for the free and reduced lunch program that is offered by the district.
In the summer, however, a different program is offered that is equally admirable, but organizers say a lot fewer families are taking advantage of it this year than the previous.
In 10 locations around Billings, children 18 and below can eat lunch for free. Parents can also enjoy a meal for $4.75. It is a program that benefits families from all over the city.
Jamie Harris understands the program inside and out. She works as an employee handing out the lunches to children at Pioneer Park. She also reaps the benefits as a parent.
“I’m a low-income family myself, and to be able to work and bring my kids to this job and be able to feed them, that’s huge on my part,” Harris said.
There are many parents just like Jamie all over the city of Billings. There is an evident struggle for parents fighting to put healthy and affordable food on the table for their families.
“You can tell families that are in more need than others. And they thank us, they tell us how great this program is,” Harris said.
Amber Blackburn is the field manager for the summer program. She also helps with the daily meals handed out during the school year. She understands just important these programs can be.
“A lot of kids that need the food come eat with a parent or no parent, they just know we’re here. It could be their only meal of the day. It’s honestly why we do our job is to reach those kids,” Blackburn said.
This year, the program is seeing a dip in its numbers. Blackburn believes that parents just do not know that the program exists.
“2020 we actually fed 86,000 lunches. This year, as of June, we’ve only fed about 12,000. So it’s a pretty big difference. It’s not really a known program anymore, either. We try to do what we can as advertisement, but a lot of parents don’t know about it.” Blackburn said.
At two parks each day, Reading Rocks is also available to the children. Between the cheap food and this additional feature, it is safe to say parents can find the entire family experience.
“It’s a great experience. They get stories read to them, plus they get lunch. So, I mean it’s a win-win for parents, kids, people of the community in general,” Harris said.
And for the workers spending time with the children and parents each day, they get to witness firsthand just how meaningful these meals can be.
“We all do it because we see what the kids go through. They tell us little stories. Mom lost a job, we’re living in a car. We want to be that first smile and that meal for those kids,” Blackburn said.