Hannah and Allen Levy had an idea to go to the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado and provide meals to children of migrant workers. They were shocked when they learned they didn’t have to travel much farther than their Denver backyard to find children who don’t always know where their next meal is coming from.
The Levys could be living in Greeley, or Colorado Springs, or Boulder, or Grand Junction, or Pueblo, or Limon, or Trinidad, or Durango or Glenwood Springs. Stick a pin in a map anywhere in Colorado, and the backyard view is virtually the same.
Nearly one in five children in Colorado lives in a situation where they routinely aren’t sure whether they will get regular meals, according to a recent study by the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Often, they go hungry, said Children’s Campaign director Chris Watney.
So this summer, the Levys started a program called Lunch Box Express, delivering lunches to students in the Englewood School District south of Denver. More than 50 percent of the student population comes from families with such low income that they are given free lunches at school, or pay a subsidized price of 40 cents for less. The Levys’ goal: ensuring that children have at least one good meal a day when school is out for the summer.
Hannah Levy was amazed to learn of this need. “People say, Englewood? Surely that can’t be.”
Statewide, 40 percent of Colorado children are eligible for free or subsidized school meal programs. Children here qualify for free lunch if they are living in families of four with an annual income of $28,665 or less. Reduced cost lunches cost 40 cents and are available to children living in four-person families with incomes up to $41,000.
From 2008 to 2009, the number of children in poverty in Colorado grew faster than any state in the nation, notes Watney. In 2009, the most recent year counted, 210,000 of Colorado’s children were living in poverty. Enter poverty’s twin sister, hunger.
“Regions that have been hardest hit are the suburban regions around Denver,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that kids in the San Luis Valley aren’t living in poverty. It’s just that the newer needs are more in urban areas. Arapahoe and Jefferson [counties] have seen dramatic increases in hunger.”
Enter the Levys, and a growing volunteer mess-tent army that spends the summer handing out boxed lunches in Englewood, and other parts of Colorado.
Working in shifts, five days a week, the Levys and a group of volunteers make the rounds in the Lunch Box Express, a mini school bus that travels to four Englewood schools, five days a week. From the school parking lots, they hand the lunches out to whoever shows up, no questions asked. The only requirements: the children must be under 18, and need to eat the meals on site.
The meals, from the Food Bank of the Rockies, aren’t fancy, but they meet specific nutritional guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One recent day’s meal included a carton of milk, apple juice, cheese, crackers, sunflower seeds and an orange. Groups of kids, accompanied by babysitters, parents and grandparents, grabbed a seat at a picnic table or on the sidewalk next to Clayton Elementary School and, as they ate, talked about their plans for the afternoon: One group had just finished with soccer practice; others were hoping to spend the afternoon at a local swimming pool.
“I like the oranges,” said 9-year-old Lily Ostberg, who was lunching under the shade of giant Colorado blue spruce trees at nearby Cherrelyn Elementary School, one of the next stops. “A lot of kids come and you can visit.”
“This is really a wonderful program,” said her mother, Brenda Ostberg. “We started telling all the kids we know, to get the word out. “
Letting kids know has been one serious challenge for the Levys. Before this summer, there was no summer lunch program in Englewood. On the first day, the group distributed 28 lunches at three schools. Recently, that number was up to 93.
“We’ve been canvassing the neighborhood, and it’s been word of mouth,” said Hannah Levy. “It’s not like when we were kids and everyone was outside all the time, playing and a captive audience.”
Allen Levy says he’s hoping to negotiate agreements with local companies to donate ice cream and cookies, and add a megaphone to the bus so children can hear when they arrive in the neighborhood.
“What we really want to do is show other people in the community or anywhere that this can be done,” he says.
“We’re trying to prove that if you take the food to the kids, you get more kids eating than if they have to go to an unfamiliar [facility],” his wife adds.
Across the state, versions of the Lunch Box Express have recently been launched.
Since 2009, the number of lunch programs listed on summerfoodcolorado.org has grown from 200 to 350, said Kathy Underhill of Hunger Free Colorado, the group that runs the website. Last year, a million meals were served.
In Colorado Springs, a mobile program delivers 300 meals a day – along with books – at six schools in the city’s largest school district.
But some areas of the state are virtual food deserts, where hungry children would have to travel 20 miles or more to a destination with a summer food program in place.
“Some of the counties that have more increased numbers [of children going hungry] aren’t used to the demand placed on them,” said Watney, of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “They aren’t used to serving these in such big numbers.”
For information on a summer lunch program for children near you, go to www.summerfoodcolorado.org or call 855-855-4626.
Author Cara DeGette can be contacted by posting a comment on the story on www.coloradopublicnews.org, a donor-supported public news service.