Groups provides summer lunches for children in need

Scott Turner Charlie Mason, 5, reaches for his lunch recently as his mom, Heidi, looks on, and Belle Goodman waits in line for her free lunch as part of the Simplified Summer Food Program at the Key Peninsula Civic Center. Photo by Scott Turner, KP News

Summertime is special to kids. It can be that magic time to sleep in, to visit and play with friends all day, and to not worry about homework.

But for families struggling to make ends meet, it presents an additional hardship trying to keep their children fed as there is no school lunch program offer by the school district during the summer months.

The Peninsula Community Foundation, which runs the nonprofit Food Backpacks 4 Kids program during the school year, recognized this need and has stepped in to try and fill the void.

For the fifth year, the Simplified Summer Food Program has been in operation at the Key Peninsula Civic Center, providing a nutritious hot lunch for children ages 1-18 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Unlike the reduced-cost lunches during the school year, there are no income guidelines—anyone can stop by and get a good meal.

“We want people to be aware of this resource, to take advantage of it and tell others about it,” said Karen Jorgenson, president of the foundation and overseer of the Food Backpacks 4 Kids program during the school year. “No one goes away hungry.”

The program, which is run under the guidance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is managed by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Education, makes certain that the meals have a nutritional value and are balanced with fruits and vegetables.

An example meal was Sloppy Joes with coleslaw and watermelon as a Fourth of July lunch, said Micky Bearden, a volunteer with Food Backpacks who oversees compliance of the meals for the summer program. “The kids love the chicken fries,” she added.

Jorgenson added that they provide a variety of meal types, such as gluten-free and vegetarian, to meet the different eating habits people may have.

The meals are cooked and served at the KP Civic Center until Aug. 21. Bearden said the civic center is great, as it provides a cool place during the hot days for the kids to enjoy a hot lunch.

They serve 25 to 35 kids at each meal; on the first week in June they served 103 meals.

Funding comes from donations of both cash and food from churches, service groups and individuals in the community. A large portion of the food staples comes from the Emergency Food Network, Jorgenson said.

Monetary donations allow parents to have a meal along with their children, as the USDA regulations state that adults must pay for the meal.

Bearden is amazed at the community support they receive. “I didnt know what they contributed until I started volunteering." She also said donors could rest easy knowing every dollar and every can of food donated for the summer programs goes to feeding children on the Key Peninsula.

“Lots of good things come out of this,” Jorgensen said of the summer program. “Were feeding families. We get food donated that cant go into the backpack program, like glass jars of pasta, so I bring them here,” she said.

The group also partners with United Ways Gifts in Kind program, so once a month Jorgenson picks up linens, clothing and household goods to give to the families.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, Boy Scouts from around the region come to the center and involve the kids in games and activities, and the boys in attendance can even earn merit badges.

“Because of them coming here, we were able to start a group (of Scouts) at Evergreen,” Jorgenson added.

The benefits, beyond the obvious of providing nutritious meals to children who otherwise may go hungry, are seen—and heard—from the children who fill the dining hall.

“They are engaged, saying ‘Hi, and socializing. Its always loud, they are so energized,” Jorgenson said.

Food Backpacks 4 kids started six years ago, sending home a backpack on Fridays during the school year with enough food to feed a family of four for the weekend.

That program is going strong with 75 volunteers filling backpacks at three locations: KP Middle School, Agnus Dei Lutheran Church and Harbor Fellowship Church, the latter two in Gig Harbor. They also have helped start a program in Silverdale to assist Kitsap County families.

The first year, they had nine backpacks. This past year, the number was 450, but Jorgenson said they could serve 2,000 qualifying students, many of them residing on the KP. “I wish we could reach out to them,” she said, adding the summer program is “like an extension of the backpack program.”

Theyve even been providing transportation to the civic center for children to attend the lunches. A van goes out to Palmer Lake, where the greatest percentage of the children come from each summer.

Recently, Bruce Titus Ford in Port Orchard gave the organization a great deal on a 2014 12-passenger van. Jorgenson said they detailed it with the groups logo to help advertise their services. The new van replaces a 1991 van they were using that “just wasnt appropriate for our purposes,” Jorgenson said.

They also started a new program providing crockpots, spices, recipes and bouillon to families. A grant from United Way has allowed them to expand the crockpot program to give them to any family on the Key Peninsula.

“I wish people would come visit at lunch time and see whats going on,” Jorgenson said. “They would see these kids are so respectful.”

She is especially touched by the reciprocity. “It makes me feel good when I see people we are helping who come out to help. This is their way of giving back,” she said.