When South Whidbey schools opened their doors this fall, 32 percent of the students qualified for free and reduced price lunches.
“We have 1,400 students enrolled, and 448 of them get free or reduced prices lunches every school day,” said Dan Poolman, assistant superintendent for business. “Four years ago the percentage was 18 percent, so we are seeing more students in need of food assistance.”
Six years ago, Mary Fisher of Clinton heard another statistic that shocked her and spurred her to action. Fisher had learned that there were 60 known homeless teens on South Whidbey. She told her friends, and they told their friends, and Whidbey Island Nourishes (WIN) started providing healthy food to hungry kids outside of normal school hours.
Fisher and her friends contacted the schools because they wondered what kids who received free or reduced price lunches had to eat on weekends. They decided to initiate the “Backpack Program,” which provides weekend lunches to families who sign up. WIN sends home family bags of food with qualified elementary school children on Thursdays to tide them over the weekend. The free sack lunches contain a meat and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread, yogurt, fresh fruit, mixed vegetables, string cheese, trail mix and a treat.
If there are younger children in the home, WIN provides food for them, too. If a child has special needs, such as a food allergy, WIN volunteers are aware of that when packing the family’s bag.
For teens, WIN offers complete lunches at Good Cheer Food Bank in Bayview and at Good Cheer Thrift Store in Clinton. All the listed food items are also available a la carte in the coin-less vending machine at South Whidbey Commons Coffeehouse and Bookstore on Second Street in Langley. Additional items available in the vending machines include milk, granola, bean and cheese burritos and pasta salad.
Another coin-less food vending machine will be installed at the Clinton Community Hall near the ferry terminal this fall.
WIN Program Director Miriam Coates explained how families sign up for the Backpack Program. Forms are sent home each semester through the elementary school
on Take Home Tuesday. Forms are also delivered to administrators and counselors at the middle, high, alternative and private schools.
Forms are available at locations other than schools, too. Island County Public Health, Readiness to Learn, Good Cheer Food Bank and other service organizations and medical providers have WIN forms.
When forms are returned to WIN, the family is immediately enrolled in the program. All information on the forms is kept confidential and the family’s privacy is protected.
“Once a family is enrolled, children receive a bag once per week, delivered to school. Lunches are taken to the elementary teacher’s lounge where teachers pick them up and send them home with their students. For middle and high school, we deliver to the office and the student can pick it up between classes discretely,” said Coates.
Older kids find out about the free food from informational posters at the middle and high schools and other venues where teens gather.
“We’ve been told by some of our teens that what they get from our vending machines is the only food they have,” said Fisher. “They appreciate the nutritious choices we’re offering them. We’ve even gotten ‘Thank you’ notes for fruit and fresh veggies.”
WIN food is prepared by volunteers who work three days a week in the kitchen of the former South Whidbey Primary School.
On Mondays, WIN volunteers make lunches for the Family Resource Center, Good Cheer Food Bank, Good Cheer II in Clinton, and individual items for the vending machines and Children’s Center.
On Wednesdays, prep crews process fresh vegetables and fruit, and make trail mix and salad for family bags to be assembled on Thursdays.
Another group of volunteers bakes the nutritious treats packed in every lunch. Since the beginning of the school year, the Thursday crew has made more than 100 lunches for the family bags to cover weekend meals for kids. Those numbers are expected to increase over the course of the school year.
This past summer, with funding from the federal government, WIN provided over 1,500 free lunches to children playing at South Whidbey Community Park on weekdays.
In 2011, WIN was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation and Gold Star by the Children’s Alliance for participation in the federal program and operation of a feeding site for over 40 days.
“We have also been asked to share information about the vending machine system with state level anti-hunger groups such as Within Reach, The Children’s Alliance and the Washington Food Coalition,” said Coates.
WIN’s funding comes primarily from local donors, both individuals and businesses, and is supplemented by grants. For more information, to donate, or to volunteer, go to whidbeyislandnourishes.org.