Next week, when kids pour out of their Chicago public school classrooms for the last time this school year, hundreds of thousands of them will suddenly have far less access to two nourishing school basics — books and food.
Thankfully, two summer programs aim to meet those needs, but they could use a little help from you.
On the book front, starting June 20, the Chicago Public Library will launch its biggest summer giveaway of books ever — hopefully of more than 1 million books. All 80 library branches will be handing out a dozen free age-appropriate books to any child who registers for the library’s Summer Learning Challenge reading program.
The effort could be critical to preventing “summer slides” in reading prowess. That’s especially true for students who hail from impoverished homes where books are scarce or even non-existent.
Just over a decade ago, a Chicago Sun-Times examination of kindergarten classrooms in two Chicago public schools — a high-scoring one in Jefferson Park and a low-scoring one in West Humboldt Park — found that one of the critical differences between the two groups of children was their access to books. The Jefferson Park kids came from homes stocked, on average, with four times more books than those of the more impoverished West Humboldt Park kids.
This played out dramatically during the opening days of kindergarten, when some West Humboldt Park kids held their books upside down, or opened them backward. Meanwhile, every Jefferson Park kid was familiar with books on day one of kindergarten. Some even owned hundreds of them. This disparity has not suddenly disappeared in the 10 years since.
Also, remember that the same lower-income children who have access to few books at home are the most likely to get free breakfasts and lunches at school. When school is out for summer, many of them can’t count on those daily meals.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository and other meal providers are helping to fill that gap by hosting close to 1,000 summer meal sites for kids across Cook County, where an estimated one in five children are at risk of hunger.
Chicagoans can help by contributing food to the Depository or other food providers for use in food pantries, which traditionally see increased demand in July and August. Monetary contributions to those groups also are appreciated, as they end up absorbing some costs of the federal summer meal program, said the Depository’s Jim Conwell.
Hunger in Cook County is so prevalent, yet so often undetected, that people can help by merely spreading word — on social media, among their friends or at their houses of worship — of the summer meal program, Conwell said. Meal sites can be located at summermealsillinois.org, by texting FOODIL to 877-877, or by calling 800-359-2163.
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