This summer, as part of Congressman Jim McGovern’s 4th annual Summer Food Rocks Tour, the CNOP team visited the Riverside Village housing development in Leominster. At the development, we had a chance to meet with many of the summer meals site sponsors and coordinators, as well as the children and teens participating in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). There we met Karina Perez, a 13-year-old volunteer with the SFSP, and her mother, an employee helping prepare and serve the meals. We had a chance to speak with Karina and learn about her experience with the SFSP and the impact it has had on her community, as well as discuss potential opportunities to engage more teens like her in the program.
Karina started participating in the SFSP through Leominster’s Spanish American Center, which runs the site, when she was just five years old. She has lived in the Riverside Village Apartments her whole life, and her mother has been helping prepare meals at the site since Karina was little. Now 13, Karina volunteers at the site, helping pass out meals to the younger kids living there, as well as those who come to the site from the surrounding neighborhood. Even as a child, she remembers always looking to help out other children in the SFSP. This made it easy for her to formally become a volunteer at the site and join other teens and staff in preparing and distributing the meals.
We spoke with Karina about the challenges SFSP sites face in engaging teens in the program. Often, teens may feel like the SFSP is just for little kids, she explained. In some cases, they might feel there is a stigma attached to receiving a free meal. For these and other reasons, many sites struggle to attract and retain teen participants. Some sites, like the one at Riverside Village, have seen success by engaging teens in volunteer or employment opportunities. Karina agreed that offering volunteer opportunities is a great way for sites to engage teens in the program. She said that after her volunteer shift is done, she sits down with the other teen volunteers to enjoy a free meal together.
In addition to a free meal, teens volunteering at summer meal sites learn the importance of communication, organization, and commitment—all skills they can add to their resumes. These volunteer positions can create valuable youth development opportunities and ways for teens to give back. Karina spoke to us about how important this was, and told us that she is happy to be able to give back to a program that she felt gave her so much when she was younger.