Volunteers enter St. Joseph Catholic Church as early as 7 a.m. every weekday to prepare 400 meals for students during the summertime.
On the side of the church, they line up coolers, a different color with a different location tag, as a way to tell volunteers where the bundles of lunches need to be taken: apartment complexes, libraries, the YMCA and more.
Share Vancouver has been running its summer meals program for more than a decade to help the 20,000 students in Clark County who experience food insecurity, which the USDA defines as inconsistent access to adequate food sources.
The federally funded program is designed to alleviate the financial and emotional pressure of eating during the summer. The program runs from June 20 to Aug. 12, and services 12 different locations in Clark County. The program is funded on a reimbursement system so that it can meet the needs of any and all students who want a meal.
“Summer lunch is an amazing program because there’s no paperwork, you don’t need to qualify for anything,” said Becci Read-Ryan, hunger and nutrition programs manager with Share. “You can just show up to any of our sites any day that works for you and get a meal.”
During the school year, food insecure students and families can rely on the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program to provide nutritional assistance. But when those programs go away during the summer break, it can be more difficult to find a constant source of nutrition.
Local programs like Share and the Clark County Food Bank are working to ensure that all students have access to a variety of food throughout the summer.
The Clark County Food Bank offers programs designed to educate people of all ages about nutrition. One, called the Student Nutrition and Cooking Program, is designed specifically for middle-schoolers, where students learn the basics of healthy eating and conduct hands-on activities to feel more comfortable in the kitchen. There are also gardening classes and classes on budgeting.
“My vision is to inspire and grow a network of community health,” said Alison Lauderdale, the education manager with Clark County Food Bank. “I believe that every person in our community matters and needs access to the things that are going to help them become healthy people. And that starts with our youngest generation.”
Lauderdale said if people are food insecure early in life, it’s more likely that they will be food insecure as adults. The food bank aims to make food more accessible to vulnerable community members and families.
Earlier this week, Lauderdale said she was on the phone with a woman who was seeking food assistance for the first time — she was unsure if she qualified, and kept questioning whether or not she needed the help. Lauderdale said she has those phone calls daily.
Both Lauderdale and Read-Ryan say there can be a stigma around food insecurity, and that can be a deterrent from people getting the support they want or need. But Read-Ryan said that volunteers are means of support, not judgment. She also emphasizes that the more people that use these programs, the more funding they can access and the more people Share can serve.
“Just know that the volunteers and the staff that are running these programs, they’re not judging you,” Read-Ryan said. “You don’t have to be desperate to access these programs. If it would just help a little bit and make your life less stressful, access them.”