“There’s no qualifying — all you have to do is show up" and be under 18, Pastor Rickey Rivers said.
PANAMA CITY — Pastor Rickey Rivers knows hunger doesn’t end when school is out.
That’s why Rivers founded the Free Summer Lunch for Kids and Teens program, providing tasty and nutritious lunchtime meals for local kids 18 years of age and younger all summer.
“There’s no qualifying — all you have to do is show up," Rivers said. "There’s no paperwork, there’s no certain income that you have to bring in. ... (If) you’re breathing, 18 (years old) and under, you can come here.”
Rivers, who is retired from the Air Force and currently serves at the Praise and Empowerment Center in Panama City, grew up in Savannah, Ga., relying on a free lunch program.
“I’ve been alone since I was 13,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that (program), I may have turned to a different type of life instead of having a doctorate degree, instead of graduating college, instead of retiring in the Air Force. So what I always want to do is give back to those people who gave to me.”
In order for the program to qualify for reimbursement from the state, all meals served must meet federal nutritional requirements, which call for specific portions of each food group. But it was important to Rivers that the food taste good while remaining nutritional.
“I said, 'I want the best. I want kids to want to come and eat here,'” he said. “So I found out the best meals and I just duplicate it every year, and they love it. And they don’t have all the food they don’t like — the bland things.”
There are different meals every day — from sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs and corndogs, to ordering pizza from a local shop, in addition to the fruits, veggies, and container of milk received with every meal.
“We do everything that you would have at home,” Rivers said.
So far, the program hasn’t encountered children with complicated dietary needs, but if “the kid says ‘I can’t have cheese on this cheeseburger,’ Ms. White will go back there and fix them up," Rivers said. "We take care of that. I mean, it’s not difficult because that’s what we’re here to do; to serve.”
The program is entering its eighth year of supplying meals to local children. Last year, the program provided 3,200 meals over the course of the eight weeks.
This year, Rivers believes there will be an increase in numbers. He hopes more church youth programs over the summer will utilize the free lunch program so they can save money to access more fun activities instead of spending it on food.
“This is my way of giving back to the communities; feeding the kids, because one kid may turn out to be a whole lot better than me,” Rivers said. “The more kids we can serve, the better it is for the community.”
The program operates 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at the A. D. Harris Learning Village cafeteria, 819 E. 11th St., Panama City.