Re-2 takes summer meal program on the road
A pilot mobile food program providing free Friday lunches to children in Rifle will roll on through the summer after distributing nearly 1,500 meals in its initial eight months in existence.
The number, organizers said, is both proof of the program’s success and an indication of the need in the community.
The mobile program will continue as Garfield School District Re-2 expands its summer meal initiative, which will offer free meals five days a week to all children 18 years and younger at four locations in Rifle.
The summer meal service, which is subsidized by the federal Summer Food Service Program, gets underway June 27 and runs through July 22.
The revamped effort combines the district’s previous free summer program, which was offered at Rifle Middle School up until last year, with a model created by the pilot mobile program that started last November.
The collaborative effort distributed bagged lunches consisting of healthy foods to children at Cottonwood Park, Joyce Park and Davidson Park in Rifle on Fridays, when the district does not have school.
Largely led by LIFT-UP, LiveWell Garfield County, the district and volunteers, the program aimed to address food insecurity by overcoming one of the largest hurdles to providing any form of services: geography.
“Geography is playing a big role in how you get services to people,” said Dana Wood, LiveWell Garfield County coordinator. “You need to come to them, not the other way around.”
From January through May 20, a period that included several months of harsh winter weather, volunteers distributed 1,496 meals. Hundreds more have been distributed on Fridays since school closed for the summer.
“From our perspective it’s been very successful,” said Kimberly Loving, executive director of LIFT-UP, which provided the meals throughout the school year.
That success was crucial for future plans.
All parties recognize there is a need for such a program. Nearly 54 percent of Garfield Re-2’s 4,677 students qualify for either free or reduced lunches, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.
However, organizers needed to demonstrate they can be successful, with limited resources, in order to lay the groundwork for future expansion.
“Very good numbers,” Theresa Hamilton, director of districtwide services, said of the pilot program. “And that kind of participation, along with some really great volunteer efforts … those kind of things will make a program like this sustainable.”
Others seem to agree.
LiveWell Garfield County contributed a $2,500 grant and the Western Colorado Community Foundation kicked in another $5,000. Most of that money will go toward forming a sustainability plan that organizers hope will one day lead to an expansion of the program throughout the district — not just in Rifle.
That has always been the goal, but Hamilton cautioned the group is taking a conservative approach in developing the program to ensure that it maximizes the limited resources available. Simply throwing money at a problem with good intentions does not guarantee success, and dollars are limited. And, Hamilton added, the last thing the district wants to do is create a program that benefits many children and then pull the program if it is unsustainable.
Expanding mobile model beyond Re-2
With the new Garfield Re-2 summer program, the district will distribute lunches at two of the pilot program sites — Cottonwood Park and Joyce Park — along with Metro Park and Rifle Middle School. LIFT-UP is continuing the Friday meal distribution through the summer because, as Loving said, many of the children are accustomed to receiving a lunch at those specific times.
The fact was evident on June 17 as Carisa Berrett, office manager for LIFT-UP, distributed lunches at Joyce Park in north Rifle. Berrett, who said she had been helping out with the mobile program for about a month, recognized many of the children who came for a lunch that day. While there are some new ones, it is usually the same children who stop by week to week.
The school district previously offered a free summer lunch program at Rifle Middle School up until last summer, when it opted to stop providing the lunches due to a lack of participation.
“We certainly used a lot of different avenues to communicate that it was open to the public, but we didn’t get a lot of use,” Hamilton said.
Access AfterSchool, a nonprofit offering after-school and summer programs to elementary and middle school students in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys, picked up the nutrition program that year and provided meals in conjunction with its summer program at Rifle Middle School. The meals were only available to children participating in the summer program.
That site-based, closed model of distributing lunches is not uncommon.
Roaring Fork School District provides a free breakfast and lunch to students who enroll in the district’s summer enrichment program.
In general, the district has observed numerous benefits since it started the enrichment program five years ago, and that includes the two free meals.
“It is a valuable resource for many families and I’m glad that we can provide that for them,” said Michelle Hammond, director of food services for Roaring Fork School District.
While Roaring Fork does not have as high a percentage of children eligible for free or reduced lunch as Garfield Re-2 — 40 percent compared to 54 percent — there is still a need, which is exactly why the district includes those two meals during its summer program, Hammond said.
“It is a need.”
For those reasons, Wood with LiveWell Garfield County said the hope is to not only expand the mobile program in Garfield Re-2, but other districts as well.
“That’s definitely been identified in our strategic plan for next three years … how do we identify these opportunities in the other school districts, because there is a need in some shape or form.”
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