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Behind-the-scenes program fills nutrition gap

While school hallways are quiet and classrooms are empty during the summer, there’s one group of folks working hard behind the scenes to make sure that close to 1,200 children and teens in Forest Grove and Cornelius have a healthy lunch every day.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - From left to right, volunteers Susie Eggleston, Keri Wetzel and Shannon Holscher hand out lunches at Forest Groves Bard Park last Friday.

This summer, four sites in Forest Grove and two in Cornelius serve a free lunch on weekdays to anyone under age 18 as a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.

Started in 1968, the nationwide Summer Food Service Program fills a gap where the public schools’ free- and reduced-lunch program leaves off when the school year ends in June.

The program is administered at the state level by Oregon Department of Education at more than 600 meal sites across the state, and is sponsored locally by the Forest Grove School District.

FGSD’s nutrition services prepares about 1,200 lunches each weekday, said Stacie Reiter, operations manager of the district’s Child Nutrition Department.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Linda Stiles Taylor of All Together Now distributes free books at Bard Park during the time a free lunch is served to anyone 18 and under.

In addition to the six sites in Cornelius and Forest Grove, meals are served during the district’s Migrant Summer School, which wrapped up last week at Fern Hill Elementary School. Reiter saw an increase in the number of meals served there, up from about 180 per day last year to nearly 300 this summer.

Overall, Reiter said, the number of meals being served this summer decreased slightly from last summer.

“It’s down a bit,” she said, speculating the hot weather earlier this summer may have kept some children away.

In 2013, the district served around 16,300 meals. That number ballooned to 25,400 in 2014, Reiter said, in part due to better outreach and awareness about the program.

So far this summer, there have been nearly 15,000 meals served (as of July 17), with four weeks remaining.

The two cooks who prepare lunches each day been doing it for more than a decade, Reiter said. “They have it down to a science.”

Tuesdays and Thursdays are typically sandwich days, with warm meals served on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reiter said they stick with kid favorites — including burritos, pizza and corndogs — to reduce food waste.

“We sneak nutrition into them,” Reiter said with a smile. Whole grains and lean protein, as well as fruit and milk, are served with each meal.

Volunteers make it happen

The folks who really make it happen, Reiter said, are the site volunteers, program partners who pick up meals from the Joseph Gale Elementary School kitchen — where the meals are prepared — take them to the meal sites for distribution, then return coolers and other equipment to the campus in Forest Grove’s Old Town neighborhood every day.

Members of the faith community spend countless hours volunteering to get the meals distributed on time each day.

Pastor Zach Milton of Forest Grove Sonrise Church acts as the point of contact, smoothing the communications path between the school district and church volunteers.

Sonrise Church volunteers at Bard Park, while Pastor Dale Phipps and his crew from Real Life Christian Church sponsor Harleman Park in Cornelius.

At Lincoln Park, one of the busier summer sites, volunteers from Refuge of Christ Church help out each day.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re being present with the kids,” said Sonrise Pastor Rudy Tinoco. “Building relationships is important to us.”

“It’s an interdenominational effort,” Tinoco added. “Regardless of differences in theology, we come out to help the community,” he said, adding that they’ve also had volunteers from St. Anthony’s Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Because of the approximately 70 volunteers who help out, Tinoco said, lunch service on Fridays was added this summer.

Tinoco and Reiter both said they hope to add lunch service at Rogers Park next summer.

Reiter said adding Rogers Park would help maximize the reach of the summer lunch program, giving children another accessible, safe location.

“It’s a great resource. It’s so easy,” Reiter said. Children need only show up to a meal site to get a free lunch. No proof of income or registration is required.