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In a Nutshell: Addressing childhood hunger while school is out

| June 19, 2024 1:00 AM

School is out and for one in six local children this means they lose access to the nutritious school-provided meals that their families rely on.

To address childhood food insecurity during the summer, local food access organizations are teaming up once again to ensure free summer lunches for kids and teens in northern Flathead and Lincoln Counties. This year, Land to Hand (L2H) is spearheading the Summer Meals Program for Columbia Falls, Olney and Trego. The Whitefish School and Kalispell School Districts are leading the program for their respective communities. You can find the closest summer meals site by texting FOOD to 304-304. 

Gretchen Boyer, the Executive Director of Land to Hand shared, "School meals are so important to child food security and we are honored to have such amazing partners as North Valley Food Bank, Whitefish School District and No Kid Hungry to make Summer Meals possible." 

The lunches are available for all children and teenagers under 18 and there is no registration required. Land to Hand and our school districts encourage the participation of all families in need as they are reimbursed by the Office of Public Instruction School Nutrition Programs for every meal provided. 

In addition to the lunches, Land to Hand and the Whitefish Backpack Assistance Program will continue to provide their weekend backpack programs throughout the summer. In Columbia Falls, weekend bags can be picked up at 279 Veterans Drive every Friday between 11:30 a.m. - noon. In Whitefish, Trego and Olney, bags will be available at the Summer Meals Program sites.

North Valley Food Bank (NVFB) supports both the summer meals as well as the Backpack Assistance Program by delivering them to Olney and Trego on Fridays during our mobile pantry operations. Further, NVFB ensures that fresh, healthy food is accessible for all family members at our Whitefish choice model store and our mobile pantry sites. We often see an increase in families visiting during the summer months and prepare accordingly. 

Recently, we moved our Kids Snack Program to a Choose-Your-Own-Snack model and children are excited to now build their own healthy snack bags at our kids table, a welcoming place featuring a mural of fresh veggies, glittery hearts, shiny rainbow, snacks and free books. The piece of art was painted by Bozeman Artist Alyssa Shaw in memory of Traci Stolte, a passionate advocate for healthy food for all kids and leader of the backpack assistance program who passed away in 2020. Her love and light will continue to shine through the collaborations building nutrition security for children in our communities.

In addition to the Summer Meals Program, USDA has launched its new Summer EBT program. Summer EBT is federally funded, operates across the U.S., and works like SNAP, providing grocery benefits to low-income families with school-aged children. Summer EBT will be vital for thousands of struggling families, especially in rural Montana. Montana opted out of the program last year and we are thrilled that it will be available to our neighbors this summer. To learn more about the program and to see if you are eligible, check SummerEBT.org.

North Valley Food Bank and Land to Hand also provide a variety of additional programs promoting nutrition security, food access and education this summer. Land to Hand runs the Double SNAP program at local farmers markets and offers a FREE match (up to $30!) for SNAP benefits redeemed for fresh fruits, vegetables and plant starts at farmers markets. If your kids want to learn more about nutrition and local food, sign them up for one of L2H’s Summer Camps or Summer Art Classes at the Wildcat Garden or the North Valley Food Bank Junior Chef Program. L2H offers need-based scholarships for their camps.  Moreover, the L2H Summer Art Classes and NVFB’s Junior Chef Program are free to the community. 

We believe that all kids in our communities should be able to enjoy summer adventures and make memories with new and old friends. We hope that our collaborative efforts decrease the risk of food insecurity and support worry free summer days for families in our communities.