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Filling the meal gap: Mount Si Food Bank’s Summer Cupboard helps children avoid hunger
To the Upper Valley organizations helping low-income families with children, summer is no time for vacation. It’s a time to take on new projects and fill unexpected needs.
When public school classes ended in June, Mount Si Food Bank Director Heidi Dukich was surprised to find a big summer gap left by the Snoqualmie Valley School District’s free and reduced-cost lunch program.
When class was in session, about 860 children got a hot breakfast and lunch every weekday. Until school starts again, the closest equivalents are in Bellevue, Renton, or Kent.
Dukich wants to do something locally to help students who are no longer getting those hot, healthy meals.
“It breaks my heart,” Dukich, mother herself, said. “There’s not that many families coming to the food bank.”
According to Snoqualmie Valley School District records, 13 percent of enrolled students qualified for free or reduced-price meals last year, and only about 90 percent of those students participated in the program. To be economically feasible, a summer meal program, like the school-year program, would have to go through the USDA, which requires more than 40 percent of students in the school district to meet the income guidelines, explained Kerry Beymer, Parent Education and Support Manager at Encompass.
If this area did meet the income guidelines—185 percent of the federal poverty level ($22,050 annual income for a family of four) or less for reduced-price lunches, 130 percent or less for free—an organization such as the school district would still have to offer to host the program, Dukich said.
It’s a problem for struggling parents of younger children, too.
“There isn’t anything established for kids under 5 in the summer to get a hot meal,” said Beymer.
A summer meal program might be feasible in the future, especially with the collaborative efforts of the food bank, Encompass, and other organizations in the One VOICE effort, but for this summer, it’s been ruled out. Instead, the food bank has implemented a new Summer Cupboard program, as part of its regular Wednesday service. Mount Si still serves about 370 families each Wednesday, but for those with children enrolled in the free or reduced meal program through school, it offers a few extras for the meals their children are now eating at home instead of school.
“What the families will receive is five breakfast and five lunch items and some snacks,” explained Dukich, plus extra milk, cereal and an additional bag of shelf-stable foods, marked with a flower, to make it look happy.
Ten-year-old Haylee excitedly tears into her family’s bag, and assesses the contents: juice, fruit snacks, soups, canned tuna, gelatin snacks, and mac-and-cheese. She’s learning to cook, says her mom, Becky, and she can prepare most of the foods in the bag with no problem, probably even the mac-and-cheese, although she’s never made it on her own yet. “She’s an egg-cooker,” explains mom.
Mom Linda is happy to see that her 13-year-old daughter will be able to cook easy and healthy meals for herself and for Linda’s 9-year-old granddaughter with her Summer Cupboard fare.
“Most of the things in it are pretty easy to make,” she said, “and these are all good kid essentials.”
Linda has been signed up for Summer Cupboard for four or five weeks so far, almost since the program began. A single mother working full time, she also takes care of her granddaughter on weekdays during the summer. “Between the food bank and this Summer Cupboard, it really helps,” she said.
Haylee’s mother Becky is also glad of the help offered. She, too is a single mother, and Haylee is the oldest of her four children, but she hadn’t visited the food bank in months, and didn’t know about the Summer Cupboard program until this visit. Her family helps care for her children while she’s working an average of 30 to 40 hours each week, and she hadn’t really thought about summer meals before. “It’s really good to see that it is here,” she said.
Both women can think of families or children who might be missing out on help from the Summer Cupboard program, which is Dukich’s concern, too. But since the program is in its first year, she’d decided to start small.
“This was something that the manager and I planned on addressing. We both have school-aged children, and I was getting these e-mails about the summer food program,” she said.
The food bank does not require much information from clients who use it, so they used the school criteria as a starting point for qualification. Families with children enrolled in the free and reduced-cost lunch program can also enroll in Summer Cupboard. So far, 130 families have registered.
That leaves out many children whose families don’t come to the food bank, and all of the children too young for school, who face similar struggles.
For example, of the 157 students enrolled at Encompass preschool last year, 64 were from families making 80 percent or less of the area’s median income, according to Encompass grant writer Laurie Gutenberg. Working on a needs assessment for the area, she has learned a few shocking things.
“There’s 411 kids in the Snoqualmie Valley School District living under the poverty level, and that’s federal poverty status, which is very low,” Gutenberg said.
Both Encompass and the food bank are partnering with other organizations in the One VOICE collaboration, and hope to continue those efforts. Dukich also plans to work with the school district this year on an improved program for low-income students for next summer.