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Hunger Beat

The 1 in 5: Eating healthy, learning better

Dahlia Ocasio and her children receive food from the Healthy Kids Market at Calmeca Academy.
In our community, hundreds of thousands of children face hunger every day. But, the Greater Chicago Food Depository and other organizations provide programs designed to fight childhood hunger.

On September 30, 2015, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization - the federal law that funds many of those programs - is set to expire.

Twice a month for the next year, we will be telling stories about the importance of those programs. These are the real stories of the 1 in 5 children in Cook County who face food insecurity and the programs that make an impact on their lives.

Parents cheerfully move through the line at the Calmeca Academy Healthy Kids Market, stopping to chat with the volunteers while their canvas bags fill with bananas, pears, apples, cabbage, pasta and more.

Principal Frances Garcia stands nearby, greeting everyone who comes through the line. She helped start the program at Calmeca, a Chicago Public School in the Brighton Park neighborhood, when the school opened in 2010. Since then, she’s become keenly aware of the need in the community.

“We’re filling a void for a lot of families,” she said. “The majority of families that come to the market are extremely needy.”

Calmeca’s Healthy Kids Market serves approximately 190 families at a weekly distribution. It is available to families with children in the school.

“The market has made a huge contribution to the quality of life for a lot of families in this community who are struggling to make ends meet,” Principal Garcia said.

The Healthy Kids Market is run entirely by parent volunteers and distributes food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. It helps ensure children have enough food to eat when they’re not at school.

“Some parents in our community can’t afford produce at all,” said Principal Garcia. “But they’re able to get it here.”

That’s the case for Dahlia Ocasio, who has a 12-year-old, 9-year-old and 5-year-old at the school. She’s currently unemployed but her husband is working full-time. Still, their budget is stretched every month.

“This is really great for my children,” she said. “It helps a lot because we want them to eat healthy so they can learn better.”

Dahlia comes to the market every week.

“There’s no way I would be able to afford fresh fruit if I wasn’t getting it here,” she said.

Not only does the program provide fresh fruit and vegetables to children and families in a community that does not have easy access to them - it is also an excellent way to get parents more involved in their child’s education.

“The market brings parents to the school that we wouldn’t normally see,” Principal Garcia said. “All of a sudden, they start to see the school as a place where they too can learn and grow.”

There are currently 11 Healthy Kids Markets at Chicago Public Schools across the city. The Food Depository intends to expand the program to additional schools in the next year. The Healthy Kids Market at Calmeca Academy is supported by Morgan Stanley’s Healthy Cities, a program that brings together medical care, healthy food and safe opportunities for exercise. 

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