Nonprofit takes over summer meals program for kids

Share steps in after previous provider suffers budget cuts

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Summer meals

For a list of Share meal sites for children in Vancouver, go to columbian.com.

Share still needs volunteers for its summer meal program. Call 360-750-4436, ext. 300.

Battle Ground’s program this year includes breakfast and will take place at Captain Strong Primary. A new program run by Educational Service District 112 will be at Fruit Valley Elementary. Both start on Monday.

To find sites anywhere in Clark County, go to Parent Help 123 or call 888-436-6392.

A line of children snaked out of the cafeteria at Silver Star Elementary School on Tuesday. School in the Evergreen district had ended more than two weeks earlier.

And yet, kids came out of classrooms, picked up lunch trays and chatted with friends while eating turkey sandwiches.

They were scarfing down 300 of the 30,000 free summer meals expected to be served to children in Vancouver alone this summer. Similar scenarios will unfold in Battle Ground, Washougal and other places around Clark County, as nonprofits and governmental agencies make sure children — mostly from low-income families — eat nutritious food when school is out.

At Silver Star, volunteers from the Vancouver nonprofit Share,

which helps the homeless and the hungry, were filling children's trays. The nonprofit this year tripled the size of its summer meal program for children, as it fills the void left by Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation. That public agency had to discontinue its long-standing program in the face of budget cuts, said Carla Christian, Share's assistant director for hunger response.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses food costs for low-income children's meal programs, but the parks department had to cut the staff that administered the program, Christian said. Share already had the credentials to qualify for federal grants because of the work it does in shelters and food pantries.

"They were delighted when we got in touch with them," Christian said about Parks and Rec's reaction.

At the stroke of a pen, Share's summer meal program grew from about 8,000 meals served at seven sites last year to an expected 30,000 at 16 locations this summer.

The nonprofit knows how to get the most bang from its donations and grants. The agriculture department reimburses at a flat rate per meal, which means program operators need to budget tightly, Christian said. Share partners with the Oregon Food Bank, runs its own food drives and has established ties with private donors.

No school district money goes to the summer meal programs, Christian said.

The need for the extra meals is definitely there.

Share already fills about 1,300 backpacks with food once a week in select Vancouver schools to help students who are at risk of going hungry. Toward the end of each school year, concerned teachers flood Share with emails asking what their students will do in the summer, Christian said.

And the Share sites offer more than just sandwiches and milk -- they have classes and activities, too.

It may sound odd at first, but many low-income families can't afford to take their children to a meal site just for a free lunch, Christian said. If an adult and multiple kids need to take the bus to a site, that bus fare could amount to the price of cheap food for the children.

Offering a full day's worth of activities makes it worth the trip for anyone. It's also a better option, because the food at the sites is nutritionally balanced as per the USDA's guidelines.

Children at Silver Star sign up for one of a list of activities each day. On Tuesday, groups of them peered at small animals in cages in one classroom. Others listened to a story on electricity before conducting some experiments of their own. Groups created art pieces, built model suspension bridges and made papier-mâché insects.

Two of the classes were directly food-related. In one classroom, Vancouver teacher Deborah Wolf taught kids how to make black bean dip and a quinoa salad. She also talked to them about the high sugar content of many foods and how diabetes can change a person's life.

Outside, near the playground, students potted plants under the guidance of volunteer Pam Brumfield. They put starts for cucumbers, beans, tomatoes and kitchen herbs in large pots, which the kids will take home at the end of the program.

"They'll grow healthy vegetables for their families and get the pride that they brought food home," Brumfield said.

These learning exercises are especially helpful for the students typically served by the program.

It has been shown that low-income children are at higher risk for the so-called summer drain, said Erica Nicewonger, a Vancouver teacher who volunteers at Silver Star during the summer. She's talking about the learning loss that typically occurs after weeks away from classrooms. Families living in poverty often don't have the means to go on vacations, visit museums or national parks, or enroll their children in costly summer camps.

But the activities at Silver Star don't just benefit the children -- most of the adults teaching them are learning, too.

Share partners with many community organizations to provide guided activities at the food sites. But the program at Silver Star is special in that it's a partnership with Washington State University Vancouver's teachers program.

About 75 current and 10 former student-teachers from WSUV staff the classrooms for the summer. Nicewonger, who now wears many hats at the summer program, several years ago was a WSUV student-teacher at Silver Star.

"It's a chance to learn how to engage kids from all different backgrounds," she said. "This was my first hands-on teaching experience."

She learned from other teachers and from the WSUV professors who provide feedback there, without the probing evaluations that are part of student-teaching during the school year.

And some students take something else away from the program besides a full stomach and potted plants: a desire to give back.

Kim Thornton came to Silver Star for five summers until she turned 18, which is the cutoff age for the program.

"It gave me a place to hang out in the summer," the now-19-year-old said. "And the food helped a lot."

Now she is a volunteer teaching assistant at the summer program, which her younger brother still attends.

Some kids have been inspired to look far ahead by the help they received at Silver Star.

Shawn Szueber signed up for the intern group. He will help teach some of the younger kids.

"This is good experience," the 14-year-old said. "It helps me understand what (younger) kids are like. I might be able to get a job helping other kids."

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.