With closures, keeping kids fed

by Teresa Byrd
Staff Writer | March 25, 2020 6:16 AM

A group of children, gathered with backpacks and bicycles, began jumping up and down with excitement, arms in the air, as the bright yellow school bus pulled up to the Martin City Fire Hall on Thursday afternoon. The bus was carrying daily sack lunches and breakfasts and a spring break’s worth of groceries to students who, because of the coronavirus school closures, don’t currently have access to this normally available resource.

Two different organizations, the School District 6 Child Nutrition Program and local nonprofit Farm Hands-Nourish the Flathead, are spearheading the effort to ensure food access to all children who may need it during this time.

Typically the two organizations work in tandem to provide well-balanced nutrition for the district’s children. The Child Nutrition Program provides breakfast and lunch during every school day of the year to all students in the district. This includes those who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, which hovers at over 900 kids, said District 6 Food Service Director Laurie Iunghun in a recent interview.

Many of those qualifying students depend on these school-provided meals. To ensure students continually have access to these vital resources, the Child Nutrition Program has grown to include the Summer Feeding Program, which provides lunches during summer weekdays, and the BackPack program which fills the gaps created by weekends and longer school vacations like winter holiday, and spring break.

Farm Hands-Nourish the Flathead got involved with the school district several years ago when, true to their mission of reconnecting people with the sources of their food, they began donating locally grown fruits and vegetables for the weekend BackPack Program meals. This grew into providing a school-wide produce snack once a week at the request of the elementary schools. Farm Hands then gradually began taking over the BackPack Program, transitioning the meals away from high sugar and sodium content towards more protein-filled options.

The BackPack program provides bags containing two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and several snacks every weekend to around 270 of the most vulnerable kids in the district, said Farm Hands Executive Director Gretchen Boyer.

Since the coronavirus shutdown, both Farm Hands and the district are expecting that the number of vulnerable families “may increase exponentially,” said Boyer. Both organizations are gearing up to provide enough food “no questions asked” for any family in need of assistance.

As soon as the schools shut down, getting weekday lunches and breakfasts to kids was Director Iunghuhn’s priority. The district chose to distribute sack lunches, also containing the next morning’s breakfast, every weekday to the same Summer Feeding Program pickup sites kids are used to. This is done using two buses, one servicing the lower Canyon region and one serving Columbia Falls. Last Thursday, Farm Hands Nourish rode along to distribute weekend meals, plus one bag of groceries for each kid to last them the week of spring break.

On Thursday, longtime Bad Rock Canyon route driver Wendy Anders, drove two district employees, Glacier Gateway school nurse Casey O’Neil and veteran hot lunch helper Karen Taylor, and two Farm Hands members, Program Director Brenna Sellars and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Andrea Getts, to each of the three lower Canyon sites.

In Martin City Anders flags down each passing car, telling them to send anyone who needs food their way.

“Do you have kids?” she asks, “Go get them, bring them here, we’ve got food!”

This end of the week distribution should enable many kids to be set through spring break. But in preparation for serving kids indefinitely starting the Monday following the break, Iunghuhn and Boyer are ramping up the amount of meals to be prepped. Farm Hands is organizing small bagging parties to prepare 1,600 weekend meals packages, and the district is planning on a similar number for every weekday.

Due to the coronavirus the bagging parties will be kept in house and under 10 people, though Farm Hands has been “overwhelmed with people who want to volunteer, which is so awesome,” Boyer said.

“In normal times we’d take as many people as possible,” Sellars added.

Boyer agreed and said, “But we are taking donations now.”

To donate, go to http://nourishtheflathead.org/donate/. Updated information on meal pickup sites starting the week after spring break will be posted to the School District 6 webpage.

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The School District 6 Child Nutrition Program was in full swing during the first week of school shutdowns, providing food to any student in need. Left to right: Brenna Sellars, Andrea Getts, Karen Taylor. (Teresa Byrd/Hungry Horse News)

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Students walk home with the day's lunch, tomorrow's breakfast and a week's worth of spring break groceries in Martin City on Thursday, March 19. (Teresa Byrd/Hungry Horse News)