ROCK ISLAND — Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?
About 40 volunteers from Columbia Grove Covenant Church in East Wenatchee are doing everything possible they can to make sure children don’t go without lunch. So they’re giving lunch away free four days a week.
Their Simplified Summer Food Program provides free lunch to any child up to age 18 at five different Douglas County locations Monday through Thursday. A sixth location is added each Thursday. The program started June 17 and continues through Aug. 22.
In its second year, the program, supported by a federal program and local contributions, has been slowly building as families learn of its existence.
“We’ve been told that it takes about three years for people to become aware of this program,” said Linda Belton, program administrator. Volunteers handed out 162 meals last week and about 700 so far this summer, said Belton. They provided 962 meals last year over six weeks. Belton said she expects they’ll hand out twice that number this year, partly because the program is running longer.
“Kids were disappointed because we didn’t run it all summer last year,” she said.
“It’s an excellent program,” said Sherry Compton of Rock Island. “Look at them. They’re eating it up.” Compton brought her two grandchildren and one of their friends to Schooler Park in Rock Island Park. They sat at a picnic table with other children who were eating slices of pizza, cereal and milk, sliced peaches and grapes and cups of yogurt. Compton said she or her daughter have been bringing the children every day since the program started.
“My kids woke up this morning and asked first thing if we go to the park today,” said Stephanie Rockney, who brought her three young children. Rockney, of Rock Island, said Monday was the first day she brought her kids for the lunch, but plans to come back every day. The kids like the food and it’s an opportunity for them to get together with other children. Volunteers also provide free art and craft materials for the kids after lunch.
There’s always someone that has to pay for lunch. In this case it’s taxpayers. The Simplified Summer Food Program is underwritten by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed statewide by the Office of Superintendent of Instruction. The state health department oversees food safety. Schools and organizations in low income areas can apply to sponsor the programs locally, as did Columbia Grove Convenant Church.
“There’s lots of rules to follow,” said Belton. The meals are put together two days a week at the Robert E. Lee Elementary School kitchen. Volunteers make sandwiches, salads and other dishes and bag them with milk, fruit cups, cereal and other kid-friendly choices. Each meal has a USDA required portion of meat or other protein, grains, fruit, vegetable and milk. The lunch bags are put in coolers and stored in a walk-in refrigerator in the East Wenatchee Food Pavilion market until distributed later in the week. Meals that are left over at the end of the week are given to local homeless shelters.
The USDA reimburses the church $3.47 per meal, said Belton. That doesn’t always cover costs, so church members ask local businesses and individuals for donations.
Eastmont School District qualifies for the summer lunch program because of the high number of students who qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year. The free lunch program is open to any child, not just those whose families qualify for free or reduced school meals, Belton said. There is no identification, registration or application required.
The Wenatchee School District had a similar summer food program that ended this week.
“There’s no excuse for a child to go hungry,” Belton said. “All they have to do is show up.”