Most everyone can recall a “lunch lady” story. They usually involve mystery meat and hairnets, summoning up visions of crowded school cafeterias and food fights. My favorite came from the Pasco School District nutrition director. She told me that a cook in an elementary school regularly saw a young boy bring a lunchbox to school but she never saw him eating lunch. One day on his way into school, the lunchbox fell open. It was empty. There was no lunch and there had never been one.
She quietly took him aside, drew him into the kitchen and filled the lunchbox. He joined his friends and had the first of many school lunches she would provide for him. Too embarrassed to ask for a school meal, this boy would rather go hungry than admit he didn’t have a lunch from home. This lunch lady did what any and all do every day in cafeterias across Washington — she fed a hungry child.
Here at the Children’s Alliance, a statewide child advocacy organization founded in 1983, our goal is to end childhood hunger in Washington by 2015. Lots of the problems facing children are complex, but ending a child’s hunger is not; we want to surround all children with healthy food where they live, learn and play. Lunch ladies are an important part of the solution, along with parents, community agencies and policy-makers like state legislators and our members of Congress. Putting together the puzzle pieces to end childhood hunger involves all of us.
The Children’s Alliance End Childhood Hunger Washington campaign is part of a national effort led by Share Our Strength called No Kid Hungry. We focus on ensuring that Washington communities connect as many children as possible with available nutrition resources, from school and after-school snacks and meals to summer lunch in the park to WIC (supplemental nutrition for women, infants and children) and Basic Food (food stamps).
Right now we’re working to increase access to nutritious meals for kids in the summertime. Ask any food bank volunteer when families have the most difficulty keeping kids fed and the answer you’ll get is summertime. Gone are the school lunch and breakfast that keep kids going all day. There is an answer — kids in low-income areas can receive free summer meals at schools, parks, community centers and other sites. Parents across Eastern Washington are doing their best to ensure that their kids don’t feel the pangs of hunger, and summer meals can be the source of support that makes it possible for struggling parents and families to make ends meet during the hungriest time of the year.
Here in Spokane County, most school districts offer the program along with community agencies. Last year there were 61 sites open at least part of the summer. Bucking a statewide trend, Spokane summer meal programs served more meals to kids in 2010 than in 2009, but the number of kids finding summer meals lags far behind the number of kids who eat school lunch on an average school day.
Summer meal programs do more than just feed kids — they keep kids active during the summer months. Educators say that one key to giving all kids an equal chance to succeed in school is to decrease “summer learning loss” that’s created when kids lack access to recreation and enrichment activities during the summer.
Let’s help out the lunch ladies and lunch men and end childhood hunger in Washington.
Linda Stone is the food policy director at the Children’s Alliance: A Voice for Washington’s Children, Youth and Families. Visit childrensalliance.org.
FIND A MEAL: For information about summer meal sites, contact the Family Food Hotline at 1-888-4-FOOD-WA (1-888-436-6392) or check out the Summer Meals Finder at www.parenthelp123.org.