WARRENTON — School’s out, but Stephanie Davis and her staff of two were hard at work Tuesday packing at least 70 servings of tangy chicken and brown rice for lunch. Just before noon, their diners started trickling in. A mixture of preschoolers to high schoolers come in, accompanied by peers, parents and, in once case, a preschool teacher leading her class.
Through the federally funded Summer Food Service Program, Davis and her staff are able to feed all the kids five days a week at no charge and with no questions asked.
“I feel like they at least have some type of a meal that is free to them,” said Davis, who starts the week after school ends and runs up to a week before it opens.
The Summer Food Service Program served more than 1,150 students a day last summer in Clatsop County, where more than half of all students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches because of their income.
This year, the program includes nine feeding sites spread throughout Clatsop County. Warrenton’s three sites and Seaside’s two opened this week, while Astoria’s open July 5.
At face value, the lunch program appears more like a social club than a make-or-break endeavor for most children. Kids meet at the lunch sites daily to eat, chatter with friends and horse around together on nearby playgrounds.
Christian Saputo, 15, sat outside the Warrenton Community Library Wednesday, eating a corn dog next to his younger sister Franki Ramirez, 7, as a growing crowd of kids played on a picnic space next to the library.
Saputo said his parents work all day, and his mom asked him to walk his sister to the library. “I don’t mind making a lunch, but Franki likes to get out and socialize,” he said, adding he first learned about the program while living at Sunset Lake Resort & RV Park.
The Moss family, whose father Dalan is a school board member, sends at least five kids across the athletic fields outside the grade school each day to grab lunch, trade Pokemon cards, play outside and socialize with their peers.
“It gives them a break from us, because kids can be kind of annoying,” said 14-year-old Kale, sitting with his three brothers and a sister.
Michelle DeVos, head of Warrenton’s preschool program, walked in Tuesday with 16 preschoolers and nine grade schoolers to the feeding site inside the grade school.
“It’s all about school readiness,” she said, adding she uses the program to get her younger students used to using a cafeteria.
While most of the kids coming to her for lunch wouldn’t go hungry otherwise, Davis said hers nonetheless might be the only well-balanced meal some students get for the day.
Nearly 1 in 6 Oregonian families faced insecurities in access to nutritious food between 2012 and 2014, according to the Department of Agriculture. Of those, more than 6 percent skipped meals and faced hunger because they could not afford food.
Vicki Duffy, who works in food service for Warrenton, said she has never run out of lunches in eight years of the Summer Food Service Program. She packed 20 lunches on Wednesday, but still fell eight short, as organizers in the first week try to gauge how many people will be taking advantage of the program.
“It just breaks my heart,” Duffy said of having to turn away eight children. I have eight kids who wanted lunch. They’ll get it tomorrow … and the rest of the summer, too.”