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Durango school district program helps combat food insecurity

More than 5,000 free, healthy meals were distributed to children this summer
Durango School district 9-R nutrition staff members distributed more than 5,000 meals to children over the summer through the Summer Food Service Program. (Courtesy of Durango School District 9-R)

While summer is a time of relaxation and recuperation for many families, the end of the school year can be a source of anxiety for many.

Federally funded meal programs that run during the school year often provide families with healthy food options for their children that may be otherwise harder to access. Traditionally, when the school year ended, so did the meal programs.

To address the issue, Durango School District 9-R adopted the Colorado Department of Education’s Summer Food Service Program, effectively extending free, healthy meal accessibility to children during the school year.

“We were offering meals to all families, so there was no real stigma for people to walk up and grab a quick meal for their kiddo,” said Karla Sluis, Durango School District 9-R’s Public Information Officer. “And that’s huge.”

The program receives federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning its puts no additional strain on district’s budget.

“A school district’s general fund isn’t typically subsidizing a nutrition program,” Matthew Poling, the district’s Food and Nutrition Services director, said. “The nutrition department for any school district is funded through the USDA.”

USDA funding covers all costs associated with the program, including food supplies and labor, he said.

Poling and 9-R nutrition employees ran the Durango program, distributing meals from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday in Santa Rita park.

The team assembled, transported and distributed 5,003 meals between June 5 and July 27, more than doubling last year’s total. Poling attributes that rise to adding breakfasts.

“We applied for a waiver, which allowed us to serve a breakfast essentially for the next day,” he said. “We were there during lunchtime. We would hand the child their lunch, and then a sack breakfast for the next morning.”

The primary goal is to ensure all children in the community have access to healthy meals throughout the summer, Poling said.

“We all know that for some kids, (access to healthy meals) might be at risk. School meals might be the only meal they see that day, certainly one of the only healthy meals,” he said. “So we want to make sure that continues throughout the summer.”

All meals distributed include the same healthy ingredients that go into school lunches provided during the school year, Poling said.

Durango School district 9-R nutrition staff members distributed more than 5,000 meals to children over the summer through the Summer Food Service Program. (Courtesy of Durango School District 9-R)

“All the grains have to be whole grain, we have to serve a certain amount of whole fresh fruits and vegetables included. Only a portion can be juice,” he said.

Just because free, healthy meals are available does not necessarily mean families will be comfortable receiving them, Sluis said. The stigma of accepting help can keep families from using these programs.

To address this barrier, the Durango program eliminated the need for families to sign up for meals or complete any preliminary paperwork.

“It’s just a way to take that stigma away and be sure that families feel comfortable approaching us and asking for a meal,” Sluis said.

According to the Durango Food Bank’s website, there are an estimated 6,420 La Plata County residents who are considered food insecure and miss at least one meal a day. In La Plata County, 5% of children are experiencing hunger, a factor the website attributes to the development of behavioral issues, lower grades, more frequent hospitalization and greater susceptibility to chronic illnesses.

“In this community, there’s sort of an assumption that everyone’s wealthy, and that is not true. There are many families who are struggling,” Sluis said. “It can be hard when you’re not making ends meet to ask for help. By removing any kind of sign up or an examination of your income and all the all the forms and paperwork that go with that, we made it so people could just walk up and grab a meal and have a wonderful time at the park.”

Both Sluis and Poling are optimistic about the program’s future. Poling said he hopes to expand the program to include multiple distribution sites, which would benefit more families.

“I love seeing the happy faces on the kids and meeting the families in the park, because that’s not something we always get to do in the school building,” he said. “It’s a little more personable and it feels good knowing that we’re providing a needed service for the community here in Durango.”


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