A Community Effort to Dissolve Cape Kids’ Hunger
by Eileen Morris and courtesty of Edible Cape Cod
A broad warehouse-like structure looms on Queen Anne Road in Harwich, among a range of commercial businesses along the industrial route. The building is the home of the Cape’s largest Family Pantry, which serves over 9300 clients through its home site, mobile pantry, and satellite pantry stationed at Cape Cod Community College. But like the issue it serves to assuage, the Pantry can easily be overlooked.
For the past 28 years, the Pantry has provided meals to the Cape’s population, with one-third of those served under the age of seventeen. The Family Pantry’s Executive Director, Christine Menard, sees hundreds of kids and young families every week struggling to find security in their next meal, and is acutely aware of the challenge of de-stigmatization.“ This is the biggest problem the Cape faces,” she says. “Most people do not realize the hunger issue here. Due to the high cost of living and the seasonal nature of the workforce, this is a chronic issue.”
Barnstable County’s poverty rate for children under five sits at five percent, and for ages five to seventeen it hovers around seven percent. Although this is three percent below the national average, one in nine children in the state still struggle with the guarantee of adequate daily nutrition. In Massachusetts, over 200,000 kids live in a household where one parent makes less than the minimum wage of $11 an hour. Actual living wage for the Cape, Menard says, equates to $26 per hour, and that covers just the basics—food, clothing, housing—and averages to about $54,000 a year for a family of four.
At the Family Pantry, over sixty percent of families have one, if not two, working members of a household and they still cannot make ends meet. “We no longer consider ourselves an emergency pantry,” Menard states. “We think of ourselves as a sustaining pantry. We help when families cannot afford food or paying the electric bill.”
The Pantry provides thirty percent of its total distribution as fresh fruits and vegetables, many of which come from their own on-site 9000-square-foot garden. Despite the community outreach, only six percent of the Pantry’s clients come every 14 days, because job schedules, daycare hours and various incidentals don’t allow for the time to stand in line and wait. Still, Menard says, the Pantry remains strong in its mission. “We like to think we’re supporting those who are supporting the Cape.”
As of 2017, forty-four percent of children in Massachusetts take part in the free or reduced lunch programs at their public school, a number that has soared seventy-one percent since just ten years prior. Taylaur Pasquale, a nutritionist at the YMCA in West Barnstable, says that she hopes to meet a standard set by Project Bread to reach at least forty percent of children who eat free or reduced lunches, thereby eliminating a large portion of those effected by food insecurity. “We’re currently at fifteen percent,” states Pasquale. Through various programs at the YMCA such as Healthy Kids Day, where local vendors set up displays offering fun and engaging ways to integrate healthy choices into daily life, Pasquale seems hopeful about the impact overall. “We have a lot of team players on the Cape who really want to see a difference and we’re all coming together and trying to make a united front with kids. I think were only going to see improvement and I truly believe we’ll be able to reduce the stigma.”
This local consortium of team players includes Sue Borque and Kim Concra of Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. Both are registered dieticians and educators, and their work is as varied as it is far-reaching. Teaticket Elementary in Falmouth; Provincetown School District; Marguerite E. Small Elementary School in West Yarmouth; Nathanial H. Wixon Innovation School in South Dennis; Ezra H. Baker Innovation School in West Dennis; and Dennis- Yarmouth High School are among the places they go to teach through the Extension’s school-based program, which varies based on the needs and interests of the particular school or district. Through resources like Snacktivities, created for Monomoy School District’s Make Way For Kids preschool program, parents and their children are encouraged to approach healthy snacks through “projects” in an effort to have children try new foods and ultimately integrate food as a lifestyle choice that offers a sense of accomplishment through self-sufficiency.
Says Borque, “We are working with D-Y High School for the first time this year and met with all the eighth grade health classes to focus on food and nutrition which otherwise does not exist in the curriculum.” Borque is also working on a project that pairs the D-Y horticulture class with Ezra Baker’s third graders and the school garden. The horticulture class started seeds and ultimately transplanted them into the school garden to be used as part of their summer nutrition series and also for donating to area food pantries. Produce grown in the school’s garden will be served at an annual community dinner in the fall where families will be asked to bring a donation item for the Family Pantry in Harwich as an entry fee.
Sometimes, though, providing kids the opportunity to access food isn’t so transparent. Cape Kid Meals is a program that provides food insecure kids with food bags over the weekend throughout the school year. Considered the local chapter of a national program called Blessings In A Backpack, Cape Kid Meals provides two breakfasts, two lunches and a minimum of six snacks in a drawstring bag. The program works with schools and allocates bags based on the number of children the school says either qualify for the free or reduced lunches, or simply may need the extra nutrition at home. The program is completely confidential, and all Tammy Leone, Cape Kid Meals director, and her volunteers know is the school to which they must deliver, and the number of bags to prepare for that site. A bag is given to each child in a qualifying family.
“Many of our kids are on free and reduced lunch but during the weekend they’re at risk of not having enough to eat,” says Leone. Cape Kid Meals served two schools in their first year, and now, four years later, currently deliver bags to fourteen. Over 300 children in Bourne, Brewster, Dennis, Hyannis, Sandwich and Yarmouth are served by volunteers who pack bags donated by ASAP Printing in Chatham. Bins are filled with food purchased half from BJ’s, and half from the Greater Boston Food Bank. The bags are delivered on Thursday or Friday of every week, then distributed discreetly through the school psychologist, social worker or nurse.
“The schools are truly our biggest partner,” says Leone. “They’re the silent heroes in this. They are taking care of the child, the whole child.” The food included is based on standard FDA guidelines and usually includes applesauce, granola bars, fruit snacks, pudding, fruit cups, mac and cheese, canned chicken and cereal, among other items on a rolling menu. For the past year, Ring Brothers in South Dennis has been underwriting the fresh fruit expense that Cape Kid Meals formerly had to purchase—an item most kids, Leone points out, consider a luxury at a dollar or so a pop. “When you’re looking at a food bill, that’s a lot of money. It’s been a blessing because it allows us to have the funds to otherwise spend on other areas."
Cape Cod Express drives to Boston monthly to pick up food purchased from the Greater Boston Food Bank and delivers it to one of three packing sites in Bourne, Dennis and Osterville. Leone cites other Cape businesses such as Sundancer’s and The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod as supporters of Cape Kid Meals, and is quick to emphasize the generosity and connectivity the Cape shows its kids. “It touches your heart. They are our children,” she says.
Still, Leone believes there’s a while to go before programs like Cape Kid Meals become obsolete, and that starts with changing the conversation around hunger on the Cape.
Eileen Morris is a freelance writer and photographer who lives on Cape Cod with her family. She is thrilled to contribute to FSNE for the first time.