Meet Up and Eat Up food program providing Dowagiac children with free meals

DOWAGIAC — The Meet Up and Eat Up summer food program is entering its home stretch.

The Dowagiac Union Schools-funded program — which provides free nutritious meals to children up to the age of 18 Monday to Friday during the summer months — officially ends on Aug. 21.

This year marks the seventh summer the district has sponsored the program, which is offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Debra Cahill, the director of food service at Dowagiac Union Schools, hopes to see many new faces during the last few weeks of the program, which began on June 22.

“In every community, there is hunger,” Cahill said. “It has nothing to do with your social status or paycheck. The kids could be out and about, be hungry, and stumble upon one of our sites and be able to have a free lunch.”

The meals, consisting of both breakfast and lunch, are prepared at Dowagiac Middle School and distributed to 12 mobile sites throughout the school district Monday through Friday. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., two vans filled with coolers of meals drive to six sites apiece and serve lunch at their respective sites in 30-minute blocks.

On Fridays, the program serves a “three-day” bag, containing both breakfast and lunch meals for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s amazing,” Cahill said. “I don’t know how they’re gonna let us do it again next year, but we’ll see. We’re very excited that we’ve been able to feed the children of Dowagiac seven days a week.

Breakfast meals consist of mini-boxes of name-brand cereals or breakfast bars, a cheese cube or cheese stick, a graham cracker and a small carton of milk.

For lunch, the program serves a meat and cheese sandwich that changes every day and also serves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with strawberry or grape jelly available. Fruit or a low-sugar fruit cup, a vegetable and milk are also provided.

The program has also been able to provide meals for the children of local migrant workers.

“The teachers who work with the migrant students go out on Mondays and Thursdays and deliver the food,” Cahill said. “On Mondays, they give a three-day bag and on Thursday a four-day bag. The teachers also help them with any educational needs they may have.”

According to Cahill, overall traffic for the program is up this summer, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We usually see a slowdown,” Cahill said. “But we’ve been getting an uptick the past few weeks. There are a lot of people who need help. Social distancing by the trucks has been difficult. The kids kinda come right at you when they’re out there. But we’ve been able to make it work. It’s also been hard finding individually wrapped products because all of the neighboring districts have been going after the same products for their programs.”

Cahill is hopeful that the district will continue to sponsor the program.

“I’m thankful that they put it on every year,” Cahill said. “It’s great for the area, and the need is great. We’re trying to make it as lively as possible. We’re trying to keep the kids happy and fed.”

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