THE BUZZ II: Summer Hunger

By on July 5, 2016

Free breakfast and lunch program feeds local kids in need and highlights issues of food insecurity.

Nevaeh Paine and Braxton Blair are among some of the valley kids enjoying free meals at Jackson Hole Middle School this summer. (Photo: Jake Nichols)

Nevaeh Paine and Braxton Blair are among some of the valley kids enjoying free meals at Jackson Hole Middle School this summer. (Photo: Jake Nichols)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Summertime is when kids get to play outdoors, attend camps, and ride bikes and skateboards. But it’s hard to do any of that if you’re hungry.

The playground for the rich has a dirty secret right under its glossy surface. A study by the Economic Policy Institute recently found Jackson Hole to be the most economically unequal metro area in America. With that dubious honor come issues like hunger. And homelessness.

Wes Clarke, director of food services for Teton County School District, thinks most affluent people in Jackson simply are not aware of how many kids go hungry every day here. He estimates that a quarter of all kids in the county utilize the free and reduced meal programs offered by the school district. (The Planet reported extensively on hunger in the valley in its February 16 cover story, “Hushed Hunger.”)

“What do those same kids do in summer?” Clarke asked.  “We know their school lunch is their main meal.”

Clarke signed up for the Summer Food Service Program funded by the USDA so he could make sure kids still had access to the meals they need. The program is free and available to any kid up to the age of 18.

You don’t have to do anything to qualify. Just show up at the Jackson Hole Middle School, Monday through Thursday at 8 to 9 a.m. for breakfast, and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for lunch. Adults can eat a meal for $4.

For Jessica Paine, the program is a huge help. She lives near Snow King and takes care of several children during the week, including her 9-year-old daughter Nevaeh, two nephews, a niece, and four neighbor kids.

“It’s really hard to feed them all,” Paine told The Planet at a recent free breakfast. “We don’t have government assistance. We are just trying to help.”

Clarke said the free breakfast and lunch program ensures that kids are given the nutrition they need. He and colleague Sharon Lennon make sure each meal comes with milk, fruit or vegetable, and grain and protein at lunch. Some kids ride their bikes from home. Others attend with a parent.

“Once one mom comes, then they start bringing neighborhood kids in because they know the other kids aren’t getting fed,” Clarke said.

“There are lots of options,” Paine said. “Especially at lunch. And the meals are healthy.”

“They are awesome!” Nevaeh chimed in, finishing her plate of whole grain pancakes and kiwi.

The problem is not always a lack of food at home. Sometimes both parents are working multiples jobs and don’t have time to cook. This is one of the hidden ways kids are affected when parents are struggling to make ends meet in Jackson.

A 17-year-old girl named Leslie spoke to this issue of absent parents due to economic pressures at a June 6 Jackson Town Council meeting. Leslie, who didn’t give her last name, told councilors she lives alone with her mother in an apartment at the Timbers. Rents recently went up and now her mother works three jobs in order to pay all the bills.

“She has no time for me,” Leslie said through tears. “And I feel so alone because I don’t have anyone to talk to.”

These are precisely the kinds of situations Clarke hopes to help, at least practically. Though Leslie might be able to cook for herself, she is young enough to still qualify for the free meal program, which might curb her feelings of isolation.

Clarke has received feedback from parents who aren’t able to be there for their kids.

“I got a great phone call from a lady in Pocatello,” Clarke said. “Her son lives here in Jackson with her former husband. Dad doesn’t have the chance to make meals, and the mom was not sure what dad has for their son. She was grateful this program exists.”

Despite the enthusiasm from the people who do take advantage of the free meals, Clarke said there aren’t enough yet. In order for the program to be sustainable, he needs more kids to come in and chow down.

“When you have kids who come in hungry and receive food, they relax and you see a joy,” Clarke said. “It warms you up. It makes you feel good inside that you were able to do something like this.”

Paine has been encouraging neighbors to take advantage. She said she wasn’t sure what to expect at first.

“I tell people it really is free, you don’t need an ID, and there’s no school requirement,” she said. “Anybody can come, not just full time residents.”

The free meal program runs through August 11. Starting this week, Clarke will distribute meals at Teton County Library as well. For more information, call 732-3757. PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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