Every week day from 2 to 5 p.m., Maria Rivas, 56, descends into the basement of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s McPherson Square Branch in Kensington and becomes “Maria the Lunch Lady” to more than 40 hungry students.
Some kids grab the pre-packaged meals from her hands more eagerly than others, ripping open the cellophane covering before even sitting down at the one lonely table in the room. Those who are not quick enough to grab a chair find a spot on the floor, their small mouths tearing into the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that was carefully prepared for them.
The food is delivered to the library as part of an after-school program sponsored by the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, Rivas said.
Rivas is one of a number of volunteers who help hand out after school snacks – though she says they are closer to dinners – to children who attend the Literacy Enrichment After-school Program, or LEAP, at the McPherson Square Branch, located on East Indiana Avenue in Kensington.
LEAP provides homework assistance, computer literacy, and library skills for students in grades K-12, and daily literacy enrichment activities for elementary school students, according to the Free Library of Philadelphia website.
The McPherson Square Branch, which just added the meal program in September of 2013, also offers meals in the summer to kids around the neighborhood. Rivas said there is a huge need for food assistance in Kensington.
“It’s important that we are feeding them because they’re happy to come here and do homework with stomachs full,” Rivas said. “And some are really hungry when they come.”
According to School District of Philadelphia website, families are no longer required to fill out paperwork to qualify for breakfast and lunch meals at no cost to the student. Still, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the poverty rate for Kensington is an astonishing 46.9 percent. With so many living below the poverty line, the need for food extends beyond school hours.
“There is a poverty side to it but sometimes it’s that the parents just don’t care,” Rivas said. “I spoke with some of them and their parents have no food at home because they are too deep in drugs.”
McPherson Square Branch library supervisor Judy Moore said that though the LEAP program has been in effect for 25 years, the meal program is still very new. Without the food, the children have trouble concentrating and behaving.
The School District of Philadelphia’s Food Services Division does offer After School Program Twilight Meals that schools can apply for on a yearly basis. However, the school district’s rocky budgeting and large deficit has led many programs and services that were once considered essential, such as transportation, to be drastically cut.
According to the School District of Philadelphia’s 2014-2015 budget, individual pupils living in the poverty range were only allocated from $135 to $667 in additional assistance per year. On Nov. 11, 2014, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports a lawsuit was filed against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, alleging that Pennsylvania’s education funding system was “irrational and inequitable.” Two Philadelphia School District parents were listed as plaintiffs, though the Philadelphia School District did participate in filing the suit.
The article states plaintiffs alleged that state officials have “adopted an irrational school funding system that does not deliver the essential resources students need, and discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.”
Now, many children and families are turning to private services for food assistance. Some of them include the Philadelphia Hunger Coalition, SHARE Food Program, The Kensington Neighborhood House, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Nutritional Development Services.
For now, Rivas is doing what she can for the students by volunteering her time to them. Though she has fed up to 55 kids a day, she says, she is pushing to make even more meals available daily.
“The kids are happy to come here and feel safe,” Rivas said, smiling as tears welled in her eyes. “I feel complete because of it.”