Food 4 Kids Serves Record Number Of Meals
By: Ryan Bray
Topics: Orleans news , food insecurity
ORLEANS – Inside the Church of the Holy Spirit on Monument Road, volunteers busied themselves once again this summer preparing and delivering meals to those who most need them.
For the 10th year, free meals were provided to participants in youth recreation programs from Harwich to Provincetown through Food 4 Kids Cape Cod, a summer meals program based in Orleans that's funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rev. Anne Koehler, a church parishioner who helps co-direct the program, said volunteers helped serve a record number of meals this summer, further highlighting the growing need for such programming on the Cape.
The program started in 2013 as part of the state's Summer EATS program. It acts as a summertime extension of the state's free and reduced lunch initiative, but unlike that program, Koehler said children do not need to qualify in any way to take part in Food 4 Kids.
On Cape Cod, where according to Feeding America about a third of children don't qualify for free or reduced lunch during the school year, being able to offer meals without restrictions is critical, Koehler said.
"This act of qualifying kids is a hardship for families," said Koehler, a retired Episcopal priest. "It's embarrassing, and it's often embarrassing for kids, because it's hard to hide. The beauty of the summer food program is every kid qualifies. You don't know who really needs this meal and who doesn't."
Koehler came to the program about five years ago, having moved to the Cape from New Jersey, where she had worked at a child care center.
"I really appreciated what it means to help families," she said. "So when I came here... I was looking for a program to be involved with, and there's not a lot of them on Cape Cod. But this program happened to be up and running."
The program has continued to grow, even despite limitations placed on it by COVID 19. In 2020, when many of the program's regular recreation partners were unable to operate due to the pandemic, the program joined forces with the Nauset and Monomoy school districts to operate a contact-free program that safely prepared and distributed meals to those that needed them. In 2021, the program worked off of a "hybrid model" as COVID protocols began to relax.
This year, the program provided a record number of meals as most of the recreation programs it partners with returned to regular capacity. Staff and volunteers served 36,261 meals to children across its 17 partnering recreation programs this summer. That number includes just under 17,000 lunches, 1,600 breakfasts and 17,669 snacks. The program also distributed 2,400 free books to children at random this summer.
In total, Koehler said the number of meals and snacks provided to children this summer was up 30 percent from 2021.
"The statistics, the numbers that are out there, usually underestimate the food insecurity among kids on Cape Cod," said Koehler. "Our cost of living is so high."
Food 4 Kids Cape Cod only employs a small staff of six people, but it gets plenty of help from volunteers who help sort, assemble and deliver meals to programs in its eight partnering towns. This year, there were 112 volunteers who Koehler said gave a total of 575 hours to the program.
Orleans resident Carol Counihan wrapped up her third summer volunteering with the program at the end of August. She volunteered in helping assemble meals each morning at the church, and also pitched in in other areas as needed.
"It's super well organized," she said of the program. "They're always glad to see you. You show up and they're ready for you, they have something meaningful for you to do. They use your time well. If you finish early, you do a little bit of something else. You feel useful."
With summer in the rearview, Koehler said organizers are already planning ahead for the 2023 season. USDA has a strict policy for how it reimburses the program for the meals it serves (the department does not fund unused meals or those that are served as seconds, Koehler notes), and oftentimes the federal reimbursement does not cover the full cost of the program.
The USDA typically covers anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the program's operating costs in a given year, Koehler estimated, and organizers spend significant time during the offseason applying for outside grants to make up the remaining percentage. Fortunately, the program has won the support of numerous local businesses and organizations over the years, among them the Cape and Islands United Way. Jacqueline Barber, the organization's community outreach and administration manager, said the local United Way granted the program $15,000 this summer and $12,000 last year.
The program has also been supported by Cape Cod Five, town human services departments and faith based organizations from around the Cape, Koehler said. That local support will continue to be key, Koehler said, especially as the issue of food insecurity continues to grow in the region. The problem goes hand in hand with the area's housing crisis, she said.
"We just hear so much conversation about housing being an issue, not realizing that for many families trying to pay for housing and utilities, food is often the last thing money is available to."
Meanwhile, Koehler said the "income differential" between housing costs on the Cape and the national average could potentially put the program's federal funding in jeopardy.
"We need to make sure moving forward that if we lose USDA funding, we can still do this," she said.
But Koehler and volunteers have hope that the program will be able to withstand any challenges to the program's funding that might arise, especially as awareness about food insecurity continues to grow.
"We realized that the community is 100 percent behind this, and we're really quite confident that we'll be able to continue to do this," Koehler said. "The community is really beginning to recognize the need and the important role we fill."
Email Ryan Bray at firstname.lastname@example.org