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Free picnics in park 'a really big help to parents'

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Anne Trenda has lunch in University Park with her two grandchildren and their friend. She says it's wonderful. In the past month, Trenda has taken Ashley Tabatt, 13, and Taylor Tabatt, 8, to the park several times for a free s...

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Anne Trenda has lunch in University Park with her two grandchildren and their friend. She says it's wonderful.

In the past month, Trenda has taken Ashley Tabatt, 13, and Taylor Tabatt, 8, to the park several times for a free sack lunch provided by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Grand Forks.

The agency was founded by Roman Catholic parishes to meet community needs after the 1997 Red River flood. It now gets support from other churches and agencies as well, offering a wide range of services that include a food pantry, transitional housing and a thrift store.

The summer lunch program kicked off June 16 to meet the food needs of families who, during the regular school year, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Organizers say no one in need will be turned away.

"This is really a big help to parents," said Trenda, whose daughter takes college courses while her husband is at work. "It really helps out during the day, having a lunch available. This is wonderful that they would do this."

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There are two lunch sites, one from noon to 1 p.m. in University Park and another from 11 a.m. to noon in Lake Agassiz Park near the School for the Blind, according to Brie Siefken, a University of North Dakota pre-med student who is interning at St. Vincent as the coordinator of the summer lunch program.

The program runs Monday through Friday and continues through Aug. 15.

Since the program began, 990 children have taken part.

An additional 92 meals have fed the volunteers and adults who eat with the children, Siefken said.

The sack lunches vary - anything from Monday's sandwiches to tacos-in-a-bag, chef salads and wraps.

It's all about providing a well-balanced, healthy meal for children, especially when their families may be feeling an economic pinch, Siefken said. And it's not limited to children.

"We feel like if a parent needs a meal, they can get a meal also," she said.

The meals for the children are funded through a grant from the USDA Summer Food Service Program, while any additional meals, for parents or caregivers, are picked up through private grants, Siefken said.

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A grant through the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs pays for her internship.

The parks were chosen because they are in areas where more than 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced lunches during the school year. University Park has the higher attendance, Siefken said, with as many as 50 children served per day.

"People really seem to like it," Siefken said. "I hear from people that it really helps out, especially with high gas prices."

Along with healthy meals, the program incorporates an educational twist. Guest speakers present mini-informational programs to children - mainly centered on the theme of healthy living. North Dakota State University Extension Office, Valley Dental Health, Grand Forks Public Health and the Grand Forks Fire Department are a few of the presenters. Monday, Greg Gust with the Grand Forks National Weather Service office, gave children a weather presentation.

"The kids seem to be learning," Siefken said. "They remember what they heard, even a few days after."

Each day, the children fill out journals to talk about what they like or don't like about the program. Their comments will be helpful for next year's program and, when the program wraps up, the journals will be given to the children - complete with recipes for the meals they had throughout the summer, Siefken said.

Danelle Ross, who heads a group for Grand Forks moms, found out about the program and brought her three children, Briana, 7, Ethan, 4, and Lillie, 2, to University Park.

"I think it's a great way to make sure kids are getting fed," she said. It's also nice that it's in a park, so "the kids get to play, too," she said.

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Michelle Lucia-Ingle said it's convenient and helpful to have the meal available in University Park. Her children are in the Park District's Just for Fun summer program in the morning and in the afternoon.

Friend Jennifer Colton, who also has children in Just for Fun, said the park is the perfect place for the free, healthy lunches.

"It helps so that the kids get more exercise," Colton said.

It also has helped ease a financial pinch on her pocketbook.

"Now I'm only buying lunch stuff for the weekends," she said. "That really helps."

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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