Among the crinkling of brown lunch sacks and soft chatter floating in the air, Leslie Matheney slips little plastic containers filled with ingredients needed to make a pizza: pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, peppers and the controversial pineapple.
Around her, volunteers from all walks of life have gathered to spend their morning prepping meals that will fill the stomachs of children across Vancouver.
Share, a nonprofit that aids the hungry and those experiencing homelessness, recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Summer Meals program. The program runs until Aug. 11 and provides free meals to all children and teens 18 and younger.
“During the summer months, some children don’t have access to school lunch or breakfast. There’s a lot of families on food assistance over the summer,” said Molly Evjen, director of volunteers and community resources at Share. “The Summer Meals program is just here to fill any gaps.”
Over the 20 years, the summer meals program has evolved. The meal program began as a partnership between Evergreen Public Schools and Washington State University Vancouver.
Share organized a lunch and literacy program at Orchards Elementary School that was mainly funded from the Nutrition Now grant and Lowe’s Home Improvement partnership to cover the cost of the meals and encouraged kids to read and tend a garden at the same time.
Throughout the years, the program quickly grew and began serving schools across Vancouver and Evergreen school districts.
Share never stopped serving meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did see a bit of a drop-off as fewer people ventured outside. Evjen said they are seeing the program start to pick up again.
Now they are serving about 400 meals each day.
A program of substance
During the school year, Jennifer Gruenberg works in nutrition services at Fort Vancouver High School, but when the summer heat rolls in, she devotes her time off to helping out with various meal programs across the city. This summer, she leads the kitchen for Share’s summer meals.
“In our community, we have a lot of kids that are low-income, and they only eat at schools. So when summer comes, they don’t always have a way to get food,” said Gruenberg. “And for plenty of kids (summer meals) is what feeds them. And what I love about the program is that Share goes out to where kids are instead of having kids come to them because a lot of them don’t have vehicles or ways to access transportation.”
From 2021 to 2022, food prices jumped 10.6 percent nationwide, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index. In Clark County, about 20,000 children are considered food insecure, meaning they do not know when or where their next meal is coming from, according to Share.
“We hardly ever have leftovers at this program,” said Gruenberg.
As Matheney and other volunteers finish packing the bags, the meals are then transported to Cascade Public Library (one of the meal sites this summer), where families gather around tables eating, chatting and reading a book or two.
Magdalena Mendoza, a mother of four, began accessing the summer program this year.
“Financially this program has helped. We come every day or every other day … my kids just love it and it also brings us to the library more,” Mendoza said.
Those interested in volunteering for the meals program can visit sharevancouver.org/volunteer/summer-meals-program-volunteer/ or contact Molly Evjen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“This is definitely a big community effort and any assistance getting food to kids over the summer really makes a difference for families,” Evjen said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.