QUINCY -- If Juelz Clausell had to pick a favorite meal at the summer lunch program, it would be chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes and green beans.
"They have really good food," the 7-year-old said. "I just like coming up here."
Several days a week, Vikki Crider brings her grandson Juelz and her daycare kids to Washington School for lunch.
"The kids are getting their vegetable, their fruit, all the food groups," Crider said. "I do home daycare, so this is like their outing. By the time we go back home, they're ready for a nap."
Most days, Crider and the kids walk from her home to the school, but last week's high temperatures hade them driving to lunch.
"Usually after they eat lunch, I let them go play for about an hour (on the playground), but it's too hot," Crider said.
The lunch program – offered Monday through Friday and providing "food that's in when school is out" – is free for anyone ages 1 to 18. Meals are served 10:45 a.m. to noon at Berrian Elementary School, 1327 South Eighth, and 12:15-1:30 p.m. at Washington, 1400 N. Eighth.
"This is a program for all kids. Anyone is welcome, not just Quincy Public Schools kids. It just happens to be housed in our school system," said Jean Kinder, QPS Food Service Director.
Kinder said the program serves between 100 and 200 kids every day at each site, with some coming from other programming such as a YMCA or Kroc Center camp and others from nearby neighborhoods.
"It's important to have a program that kids are able to get a balanced meal each day similar to the one they get at school during the school year," Kinder said.
Children can eat free at more than 1,500 sites across Illinois this summer, including Illini West High School in Carthage. and 13 other sites in Hannibal and Louisiana, Mo. Days and times of operation vary by site.
The program benefits kids and their families.
"A lot of times families are working, but their kids are home," Kinder said. "It provides something for kids to do during the day."
At Washington, kids start showing up nearly an hour before the doors open ready to eat. "I have kids tell me every day that they haven't had anything since the day before when they were here. They thank us every day for being here," said Heather Neisen, who helps prepare and serve the meals
Kids grab a carton of milk, then wait as Neisen and Juanita Griesbaum fill trays with diced pears, green beans and another favorite, a hot ham and cheese sandwich.
"Things are going great," said Griesbaum, food coordinator at Quincy junior High School who has worked with the summer program for about a decade.
"I worry about the kids out there not getting enough nutrition in the summer," she said. "With parents that have several children, sometimes in the summertime it's hard to keep adequate meals served to kids home from school. Here they get a full meal. It's a nice place to come and have a nice lunch where it's cool."
Ten-year-old Corah Smith enjoys hanging out at school during lunch time.
"We come every day," she said, adding that her favorite lunch is a pretzel served with cheese sauce for dipping.
Steve Thompson, who brings Corah and several other children to the school for lunch, said it's an important program.
"You save your food," he said. "What you plan on having for lunch you can have for supper."
Neisen, who works in QPS security during the school year, enjoys seeing the kids over the summer.
"They are kind of like our extended family when you see them every day," she said. "They love hugs and see you tomorrows."
The summer lunch program – free for children ages 1 to 18 – is available through Aug. 8 in Quincy.
Meals are served 10:45 a.m. to noon at Berrian School, 1327 S. Eighth, and 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. at Washington School, 1400 N. Eighth.
More information about the summer meal program is available by calling 800-359-2163, texting "FoodIL" to 877-877 and online at SummerMealsIllinois.org.