Local schools provide free summer meals for students

Hunter Steffen and his sister, Kennedy Steffen eat lunch with their brothers at the Umatilla-Morrow Head Start summer meals program in 2018.

For children in Umatilla County who aren’t sure where their next meal will come from, free lunch programs can help fill in the gap.

At the end of 2018, child poverty in Umatilla County was down to 19.1% from 26.3% in 2017, according to data released by Children First for Oregon. But with the number of students with free and reduced lunch eligibility still hovering above 60%, Umatilla County is home to over a dozen different summertime feeding sites this year.

City of Hermiston Recreation Coordinator Diana Picard says this summer will be the 11th year of their summer feeding program, which has five locations including the Hermiston Family Aquatic Center. Originally, free meals were only provided for children participating in summer camps with the city.

“We ventured out and started doing different parks,” Picard said, “We saw the need. A lot of kids rely on school lunches.”

The first year of the program, the city served 2,500 meals. But just last year, they served 9,400.

“We fill a gap,” Picard said.

The summer lunch program at Umatilla Morrow County Head Start will feature a range of lunchtime activities for participants. Previous years featured rock painting, water balloons, visits from the mayor and fire department, and even the occasional dunk tank.

All meals at the summer sites are free for any child under 18, regardless of income level. Most meals operate on a first come, first served basis and must be consumed onsite.

Toni Eddy, the children’s nutrition manager at UMCHS, said the activities help stimulate children and aid learning retainment to keep minds sharp during the long summer break.

Students and children under 18 can expect meals with fresh fruits and vegetables on the daily during the program, Eddy said. Limited kitchen availability means that the lunches this year will be cold meals like wraps and sandwiches.

Eddy said that UMCHS’s program serves around 45 or 50 kids a day and that last year, sometimes as many as 90 came to participate in the summer lunch program.

She noted with positivity that recent increases in summertime activities for children around the area sometimes means summer lunch ‘regulars’ aren’t as frequent.

UMCHS believes it is essential that children who could possibly be going without have access to healthy meals, Eddy said. She hopes families will encourage each other to attend.

I just really encourage families to come. We look forward to having the kids come,” Eddy said.

Umatilla School District recently purchased a van which will help expand their summer feeding programs. Child Nutrition Director Rikkilynn Starliper said that a grant enabled the district to add new floors and a service window to the vehicle.

USD’s summer feeding program will feature a range of activities. In previous years, the school district organized events ranging from arts and crafts to dental screenings.

Starliper is excited that the district will be offering four different kinds of local tamales during the program this summer, as it’s something she’s been interested in providing kids for years.

The USD summer feeding program will also be offering dinner for the first time in a few years at McNary Elementary School.

“I feel that everybody struggles financially to some degree,” Starliper said, “It’s a benefit to help save a few dollars.”

All meals at the summer sites are free for any child under 18, regardless of income level. Most meals operate on a first come, first served basis and must be consumed onsite.

Summer Food Oregon also provides information about summer feeding programs. Parents and families can text “Food” or “Comida” to 877-877 or call 211. A map of feeding sites is available at summerfoodoregon.org/map.

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