Seattle Summer Food Programs for Kids Get $225,000 Boost from Walmart
Through this project, children from ages 1 to 18 are receiving free breakfasts, lunches and snacks, along with Seattle Public Library reading assistance
Janelle Wetzstein Of The Skanner News
July 05, 2011Thousands of children in the greater Seattle area are learning that there is such a thing as a free lunch, thanks to the city’s Summer Food Service Program. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this year’s program was augmented with an additional $225,000 grant from Walmart.
Jennifer Spall, senior public affairs manager at Walmart, said she believes funding during tough economic times is a major obstacle for human services programs.
“Children who are served through this project during the school year receive food or services through USDA programs,” said Spall. “During the summer, those dollars aren’t there. And that’s when we rely on the cities to come in, step up and fill that gap.”
Through this project, children from ages 1 to 18 are receiving free breakfasts, lunches and snacks, along with Seattle Public Library reading assistance. The program began June 27 and will run through Aug. 26 at 90 sites across the Seattle area.
Previously named the Summer Sack Lunch Program, this service typically provides free lunches for need-based children at sites across the city. With the additional Walmart grant this year, the program was expanded to also provide breakfasts, healthy take-home snacks and summer educational services.
Walmart sponsored a city event to announce the enhanced program on Saturday morning, June 25, at the New Holly Community Center in South Seattle. Fresh fruits and vegetables from the Puget Sound Food Network and Maltby Farms were available, along with cultural readings and songs from performers associated with the Seattle Public Library.
Spall said that Walmart’s grant is part of $2 billion it committed last year, over a five-year period, to help fight hunger in America.
“I’m glad to see some of that coming here at home,” she said.
Program coordinator Javier Pulido said that the influx of funds from Walmart has allowed for program features that USDA regulations have prevented in the past.
“With the Walmart money we were able to reinstate snacks, which we had to stop doing a couple of years ago because of the economy,” Pulido said. “We are also partnering with the library for them to do story times in different languages for kids at selected sites, we are doing a pilot Saturday program, and we were able to increase the number of sites that the parks department has.”
Pulido said that last year’s program served approximately 140,000 meals, and 4,200 children, and this year they hope to do more.
“Of the number of kids in the Seattle School District, approximately 35 percent qualify for the program,” he said. Pulido added that of those who qualify, only about 14 percent actually take advantage of these services.
“It’s a very underutilized program,” he said. Pulido believes that transportation issues hinder participation levels. “We don’t have sites in every location. The closest site may still be a couple of miles away. Even though that’s relatively close, if the parents work or they don’t have transportation to get the kids there, they can’t access it.”
David Takami, strategic communications advisor for the city’s human services department, which oversees the program, agreed and said that publicity also affects participation.
“The challenge is getting the word out. Schools during the school year are a captive audience, and people know about the program and take advantage of it because it’s right there and the kids need to eat during the day,” he said. “But our view is that they need to eat healthy food and nutritious meals during the summer, too.”
U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-7th District) added that the need for continuing the Summer Food Service Program is essential to the success of our children. “Somehow, we think that kids lives end at summer vacation and everything is beautiful,” he said at the kickoff event. “It isn’t for poor kids. Poor kids face the same problems in the summertime that they do the rest of the year, that is how they get food, keep themselves together and keep developing.”
In addition to major changes for this year’s program such as the Walmart grant, Pulido noted that internal economic changes affected the 2011 program. He said that he used to rely on college work-study students as staff, benefiting from universities paying 70 percent of their salary. But with state budget cuts, Pulido said work-study programs were drastically reduced, forcing him to pay 100 percent of his staff this year.
“Next year we are really going to have to look at the program and see if we can afford to do that,” he said. “That will have a deep impact for us next year.”
Despite Pulido’s concerns, Patricia Wells, Pulido’s supervisor in the human services department, said the city is committed to supporting the program, even if it is in a reduced form.
“We’ll make the adjustments to continue the program next year,” said Wells.
(Janelle Wetzstein is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.)