CASEYVILLE, Ill. — It's lunchtime at Caseyville Elementary. Students pick out toppings for their nachos, punch in their code at the register and walk away with a full plate. A high percentage of these kids are eligible for free meals.
"Eighty-three percent of our students," said Principal Chelsea Clark, pointing out this is a "high-needs population."
Clark says the free lunches are important during the school year.
"If a kid's hungry, reading's not a priority to them," she said.
But there's no school-scheduled meal time during summer vacation.
So some of Clark's staff has voluntarily run a free summer meals program for the last two years, feeding about a 100 of their 370 students twice a week.
A few streets away, the need's even greater at Kreitner Elementary.
Teacher Kimberly Poe started the summer meal program when one of their kids made a confession.
"He had not eaten in the two weeks since school ended and summer school started," Poe said.
A teacher for nine years at that point she adds "it flabbergasted me that we didn't even think there were three months they were going without."
Poe started an outreach group, REACH Summer Lunch Ministry, to hand out sack lunches to kids that need them.
They'd been using an old church-turned-food pantry for years, but it was sold in October, and their plans to expand went with it.
"Our short-term goal is to feed kids, but if you study poverty, feeding bellies is not going to reduce poverty," Poe said.
She wants to create a community center for her students and the wider community. She's still working for a permanent solution, but closing the program is not one of them.
"We're going to feed them no matter what it takes," Poe said. "We would do it out of our cars if we need to. And though it's not ideal, we were determined to do it."
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