Hunger is a fact of life in Thurston County and for thousands of kids in this community hunger doesn’t take a holiday during their summer break from the classroom.
Twenty-one percent of the students in the Olympia School District qualify for free or reduced price lunches during the school year based on their family’s income. In Tumwater it’s higher — 25.9 percent — and in the North Thurston school district nearly one in every two students (46 percent) qualifies for free meals at school.
For many of those kids, their hot lunch at school is their only prepared meal of the day. Too many get cold cereal for breakfast and are told to make a sandwich at dinner time.
What happens to those hungry kids in the summer when their free school lunches are no longer available to them?
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Tragically, many go to bed hungry at night.
For others, their parents swallow their pride and go to area food banks to help make ends meet. The percentage of families turning to the Thurston County Food Bank increases 5 percent to 10 percent in the summer, according to Robert Coit, executive director.
Summer lunch programs also fill the gap for many kids. Youngsters who are able to ride their bicycle or walk to a feeding station — generally a school — are able to receive a free meal at lunch time.
But transportation is a huge barrier for many families.
Take Jennifer Duval, for example. She cares for her own three children and watches her niece and nephew while their parents work 10-hour shifts. There’s no way Duval, who lives in an apartment complex on Lake Park Drive, can load the five children between the ages of 2 and 9 into a small car and get them to a free lunch program.
Seeing that need, the Thurston County Food Bank has started an innovative pilot program that operates on a basic premise: If the kids can’t get to lunch, take lunch to the kids.
Operating on a shoestring budget of $20,000, the Food Bank is taking sack lunches to children living in areas with a high number of low-income families. One recent lunch included choice of a ham or turkey sandwich, a piece of fruit, a pudding cup or granola bar, and juice or milk.
Any child who asks for lunch is served, regardless of income. The meals, served out of a clearly marked Food Bank van purchased in part with a grant from Fred Meyer, are distributed at housing complexes recommended by local school counselors.
“This is a pilot program,” said Coit. “We’re going to have our successes, but we’re also going to make mistakes along the way. We’re going to go to some places where there is not a great need and we’re going to go to some places where we are overwhelmed. But that’s the whole purpose of a pilot program; we’ll learn by our mistakes.”
Coit said the lunch program is a natural extension of the Food Bank’s 4Kids program that operates during the school year. In that program needy students are given backpacks with food each Friday — enough food to see them through weekends when they don’t get free or reduced price lunches at school.
“The goal with this outreach program this summer is to address unmet needs,” Coit said. “We’re not going to places where there are other summer feeding sites. We’re going to places where Intercity Transit does not provide service — to kids who have serious transportation barriers to getting a nutritious meal.”
The program which is expected to run through Aug. 14.
As difficult as it is to grasp, the truth is the summer and school lunch programs are desperately needed in this relatively affluent South Sound community. Poverty and hunger are facts of life and there are kids who would go without were it not for nearly year-around services available to them. The Food Bank’s pilot program is the kind of creative and collaborative approach this community should embrace because it’s one step closer to the Food Bank’s mission to end hunger in Thurston County.