The oranges are a hit at Feeding Laramie Valley, where Sandy Moody serves lunch to a steady stream of eaters. By the end of the hour, it’ll add up to more than 60 people from daycares, preschools, and the local neighborhood. Moody said they’ll serve anyone – kids for free and adults for a dollar fifty.
Gayle Woodsum is the founder of Feeding Laramie Valley, a nonprofit that grows and distributes local produce at no cost.
“Gayle just believes that everyone should have availability of food. It’s a lower income section of town, and she just thought we were in the right location to set up a program like this,” Sandy Moody said. “Last year they did it three days a week, and it was such a success that she went to five this year.”
They started serving these types of lunches in 2015, out of a concern that some kids were lacking reliable access to nutrition during the summer months.
“A lot of children get their primary meals if not their only meals from school,” Woodsum said. “But that means, when school is out of session, they’re out of a food source.”
Woodsum also wanted to give kids something fun and engaging to do together.
“We know that sometimes kids get isolated during the summer, they lose contact with the community they have at school and learning opportunities,” Woodsum said.
The USDA reimburses places like Feeding Laramie Valley about $2 or $3 per meal, depending on whether they are serving lunch or breakfast. For a meal to count, the kids have to take certain portions of various food groups.
Woodsum said the reimbursements help them cover most of their food costs, but they’re not enough to fund an entire program.
She said, “It does nothing to cover the cost of the site that we’re holding it at, or of any of the staff that’s doing the work to cook the food and serve the food and clean up and plan the activities and all of that.”
Woodsum worked around that problem by hiring paid volunteers from Americorps VISTA, a national service program that picks up some of Feeding Laramie Valley’s labor costs.
Wyoming Department of Education nutrition programs consultant Amanda Anderson said finding staff to serve meals is a barrier to many schools and organizations. This is a concern because children in the state need more locations where they can find summer food.
“On the reservation, for example, we have communities that are really spread out,” said Anderson. “So we really need more summer food service sites so families aren’t having to drive 10 or 15 minutes or more to get to a site.”
There are no summer food sites in Sheridan, Powell, or Thermopolis. Anderson said they were starting to work to find sites in those communities last year, but they had to change their focus when food bank that had been providing pre-packaged meals to 15 existing sites around the state dropped out of the program.
In the end, the state held on to ten of those locations and added a few more. Even though the number of places serving has stayed basically constant since 2015, fewer kids are participating. Data from the Food Research and Action Council showed the number of participants in the state’s summer food programs decreased from 2015 to 2016, and only one in five low-income kids are participating. Similar trends exist nationally.
Anderson said summer hunger can have lasting effects: “It’s sad to think that there [are] kids that are worried about getting food in the summer months instead of just being able to be kid[s]. And when kids go hungry during the summer months or don’t get proper nutrition, they start off the school year already behind.”
Anderson said programs are more successful if they can make people feel comfortable showing up, so it’s important that they don’t ask people to prove their incomes. But, she said that does make it harder to know whether they are reaching the people they intend to serve.
“To make the site more welcoming, you don’t have an enrollment list or a roster,” Anderson said. “And so it’s hard to say if the people that really need it are receiving it. We just kinda hope that they are.”
Wyoming Food For Thought is a Casper non-profit also working to improve people’s access to nutrition. Director Jamie Purcell is trying to be creative in her approach to reaching kids who need meals. Like bringing food to where the kids are.
“Now we’ve actually moved mostly down the street to the Marion Kreiner pool which is half a block away. And they have a picnic shelter, so [we’re] trying to capture more kids who might be going to the pool in the afternoon,” Purcell said.
On a good day, Purcell says they serve two times as many meals as they did before they started setting up by the pool. Eventually, Purcell wants to take summer meals all around Casper, “rescuing food, repurposing it into meals that meet those components, and then literally rolling up like a food truck does to a corner and serving out of it, counting the meals that we serve.”
Purcell is planning to submit a grant for that project by December. She and Feeding Laramie Valley’s Woodsum have similar visions of growing more local food and transporting it to places where it is both needed and easier to find.
For now, they are among 96 places in Wyoming serving weekday lunches to whoever can get there.
To find the summer food service nearest you, text “FOOD” or “COMIDA” to 877-877, and then type in your address. You can also call Wyoming’s help line, 2-1-1.