Summer vacation is well underway, and for some children, that can mean a departure from healthy, consistent meals.
But in Ignacio, several nonprofits worked together to restart the free summer lunch program to serve meals to all children regardless of income Mondays through Thursdays at the Education Literacy Health and Inspiration Community Center.
Ignacio High School seniors Hannah Cundiff and Shyla Dijos were hired to serve the meals through a Colorado Health Foundation grant and expect the program to meet a clear need in a community with only one small grocery store.
“We wanted basically to feed the community. There are a lot of little kids in this town that barely eat anything,” said Dijos, who is 17.
Colorado Education Department data show at Ignacio High School, 48.1% of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and at Ignacio Middle School, 61.8% qualify.
The relaunched summer lunch program expects to serve 25 to 50 children a day at the center, in addition to providing meals to students at the Ignacio Early Learning Program, said Pam Willhoite, coordinator at Pine River Shares, a nonprofit that works to improve health.
Pine River Shares worked with the ELHI center and Friends with Food, an Ignacio High School group, to restart the lunch program. The nonprofits applied with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency that provides the food, to run the program, said Gina Schulz, chairwoman of the ELHI board. Similar programs are available nationally.
In Durango, the school district operates a pantry open two days a week for families, said spokesman Julie Popp.
In Ignacio, the free lunches are meant to fill a need left after the Ignacio School District ended its summer lunch program a few years ago, Schulz said.
The meals are also intended to supplement other food-assistance options, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, that may not be enough for some families, she said.
“At the end of the day, there is still more month than money,” Schulz said.
The school district ceased the lunch program because it lacked participation, but free meals may attract more families at the community center, where they are gathered for other activities, said Kathy Pokorney, curriculum and assessment director with the district.
The nonprofits distributed information about the lunch program to the Ignacio library and Ignacio and Bayfield school districts before school ended, Willhoite said.
Randi Gillespie brought her three boys, ages 5, 12, and 14, to the summer lunch program on Tuesday after finding out about it through the library summer reading program.
“Any little extra we can get to help is a bonus,” she said.
Cundiff and Dijos said they served 26 children shortly before the end of the lunches on Tuesday.
The two seniors got involved with the lunch program because they are members of Friends with Food, a group that founded a food pantry for other high school students. The seniors have observed the need for food through their work with the pantry.
“Sometimes the kids come up and say, ‘Thank you for the food,’ because they don’t have much food at home,” Cundiff said.
The two would like to expand the summer lunch program to include a meal every two weeks that families could share.
Currently, parents aren’t allowed to partake in the meals with their children, they said.
Willhoite said the teens’ vision to expand the meals demonstrates the leadership the Friends with Food group is meant to cultivate.
“We are leading our community to a better future,” Cundiff said.