School is out, but the cafeteria at Lucille Umbarger Elementary is packed with kids.
Some stand in line, picking up chicken tacos and chattering with the cooks. Others sit with their families at long tables, munching apples and sipping milk.
A sign outside explains the crowded scene — free breakfast and lunch for all kids younger than 18, regardless of whether they’re qualified for free or reduced lunch programs.
Last week, Tracee Anderson was there with her three children, ages 9, 3 and 6 months.
“I tell everyone about it,” she said. “It’s free, it’s good and it’s something for the kids.”
With families struggling to make ends meet, kids who normally receive a free breakfast and lunch at school don’t have those opportunities during the summer months, said Karen Parnell, deputy director of Skagit County Community Action Agency and a member of the new 1095 Club, named for its goal of three meals a day, every day of the year for hungry kids.
Only 11 percent of children in western Washington who rely on those programs have access to them during the summer, according to statistics from Food Lifeline.
With a vision to nourish the children of Skagit County, the 1095 Club is the cheerleader for many of these free meal programs, sharing resources and volunteers. The group also compiles a list of free meal sites for the community, including sites connected with the club and those working independently, like the program at Lucille Umbarger Elementary.
The fledgling, all-volunteer organization had its first meeting in October 2011, including community members and such organizations as the United Way of Skagit County. The group now has five new meal sites and more plans in the works, including nutrition classes and increasing resources for free breakfasts for kids.
The Concrete School District will revive its free summer breakfast and lunch program in July, after a hiatus due to state cuts, said Superintendent Barbara Hawkings. Part of the food, including herbs, beets and other crops, will come from the high school students’ new gardens, thanks to seeds donated by a member of the 1095 Club.
Concrete has a need for the meal program, she said. Nearly 60 percent of students in the district are eligible for free or reduced lunches, according to information from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“That’s why we’re doing it,” Hawkings said.
Under the free or reduced lunch program, children whose families have incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, or about $29,000 for a family of four, are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for meals at reduced prices, according to the National School Lunch Program.
The meals are open to all kids, and that eases any associated stigma, said Gil Gillmor, founder of a new free lunch program at the La Conner Skate Park, and director of the Mount Vernon and La Conner food banks.
The kids can eat as they’re recreating, he said, which doesn’t single them out.
Six people ate during the first day of the free meals, and Gilmor surprised two teenagers with a free lunch on the program’s fourth day. The teens said they’d bring their friends.
“The numbers are small, but we’re taking that in a good way,” he said.
Back at Lucille Umbarger, Burlington-Edison High School senior Derick Lantis said he was surprised to hear about the free meal program. He first heard about it from friends, when they said they were headed to the school.
“What are you talking about? It’s summertime,” he told them.
Since then, he’s been hooked, bringing his little brother with him to grab a bite and some bonding time. Otherwise, he said, Isaac would be at home alone. Plus, with the apples, carrots, cauliflower and bell peppers to snack on, it’s nutritious.
“It’s healthier than going to the store and getting a bag of hot Cheetos and a can of soda,” Lantis said, adding later that they’ll be back the next day.
Carol Harris, head cook at Burlington-Edison High School during the school year, said the kids will often come for both breakfast and lunch. On this particular day, they went through 12 pounds of chicken, three pounds of beans and five pounds of cheese. They also gave lots of smiles and greetings.
“I just hope it fills their little bellies and that they know that somebody cares,” she said.