East Idaho school districts combat child hunger

Pocatello-Chubbuck food service coordinator Tom Wilson monitored the line of children hoping for a free lunch at Pocatello’s Ross Park.

“You can tell which kids really need the meals,” Wilson said. “They often come alone in the summertime because their parents are working – they’re the same ones who come on the cold, rainy days when no one else does.”

The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District kicked off its summer food service program June 6. Trucks carrying free meals for anyone 19 and under will be dispatched on weekdays to eight locations throughout the city through Aug. 12.

Pocatello Students gather at Alameda Park for free summer lunches
Students gather at Pocatello’s Alameda Park for free summer lunches.

At one location, Alameda Park, up to 600 children pick up lunch on any given weekday, Wilson said.

“We’ve fed as many as 2,500 at all the locations combined. It’s pretty amazing to see the people line up at the parks, especially at Alameda,” Wilson said.

The local programs stem from a federal initiative to combat child hunger during the summer, when most schools close their doors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began funding the programs in the late 1960s. Districts such as Pocatello-Chubbuck deliver meals to surrounding locations, usually parks. The USDA then provides reimbursements.

The Chicago-based nonprofit Feeding America collects nationwide data on “food insecurity,” defined as “a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.” In 2014, more than 83,000 Idaho children were classified as “food insecure” — including more than 4,000 children in Bannock County, where the Pocatello-Chubbuck District operates. Statewide and in Bannock County, this translates to a 19.3 percent food insecurity rate. (Click here for numbers for your county.)

For adults and children, Idaho’s food insecurity rate is 14.7 percent. Among Idaho’s neighboring states, only Nevada and Oregon had higher rates.

“(Hunger) is definitely a real thing in Idaho,” Wilson said.

The Bonneville School District kicked off its summer meal program Friday at McCowin Park in Ammon. Nearly 300 children were fed on the program’s first day, said food service director Heather Plain.

Bonneville’s program is more about providing a comfortable atmosphere for those who rely on assistance.

“I don’t want to know which children don’t have food at home,” Pain said. “We have plenty of people who identify that during the school year. We just want them to come here and feel comfortable getting what they need.”

According to Feeding America, roughly 5,800 children in Bonneville County were classified as “food insecure” in 2014, a 17.5 percent rate.

Bonneville’s summer meal program “helps a lot,” said Crystal Mwingira, a single mother of four. That’s especially true at the end of the month, when her food stamps begin to dwindle.

Mwingira cleans houses and babysits children as means of income, but both jobs aren’t enough to keep her children’s bellies full, she said.

“We already don’t have much food in the cupboard at home,” said Mwingira’s 13-year old daughter, Nafisah Mwingira, a seventh-grader.

Crystal Mwingira brings her children to the meals program every weekday throughout the summer.

Students engage in a variety of activities during lunch, including basketball and swimming at nearby pools like the one at Ross Park.

The programs also aim to provide healthy, balanced meals that children might not get at home.

“One of the kids asked if he could have chips instead of carrots for lunch,” said Pain. “He was told that carrots are nature’s chips.”

Adults older than 19 can also pay to eat at summer food programs. Pocatello-Chubbuck charges $4.00 per meal; Bonneville, $3.65.

Federal rules also stipulate that all food must be eaten on location and that parents or guardians can’t “eat off children’s plates.”

“We do have people here who watch for those kinds of things,” Plain said.

Bonneville’s summer meal program also ends Aug. 12. Click here for details about Bonneville’s program and here for details about Pocatello’s program. Check your district’s Facebook page or website for times and locations.