With the close of the school year just a month away, a coalition of Yellowstone County social-service organizations is scrambling to find new ways to make sure schoolchildren and their families have access to food during the summer.
In Billings alone there are 5,494 students — 38 percent of the student population — who are eligible for free or reduced lunches during the academic year, Ginny Mermel, chairman of Billings Public School Health Advisory Counsel, told a Childhood Hunger Summit meeting Tuesday. Many students also get breakfasts through the program.
About 4,000 of those students live in households at or below the poverty level. And 520 of them, who don’t get enough to eat on weekends, receive BackPack meals to see them through.
So when school ends, the primary source of food for hundreds of school children ends, too.
Since January, task forces have been working to address the problem of “food insecurities” within the community and trying to come up with some solutions.
Some of the task forces Tuesday reported progress and tentatively adopted a theme and logo for the broad-based community effort — Be There Billings. Alex Tyson of the Billings Chamber of Commerce’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau explained that the idea was for the people of Billings to “be there” for others in the community in need.
She introduced a communication plan to raise awareness of hunger and to promote contributions to the project. Projects may include a calendar with suggestion on what food items to donate during each month. It’s a reminder that food is needed all year long, not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Tyson said. If a donor can be found to produce the calendar, proceeds will be used to buy food and to pay for producing a calendar for the next year.
Stacey Black on the Collaboration Task Force presented a draft brochure that will go out to all schoolchildren in the district, listing places where they and their families can get food during the summer break.
One key source will be the Summer Lunch in the Park program that provides meals for children under 18 from June 14 through Aug. 13 from noon to 1 p.m. at North Park, South Park, Pioneer Park, Central Park, Crow/Arrowhead Park and, new this year, Gorham Park. Meals will also be available at the Bair Family Boys and Girls Club on Orchard Avenue.
Knowing that if children are hungry, their families probably are, too, Mermel said principals at local schools have been urged to identify households that may benefit from a referral to a broader array of services.
The group is also looking at better ways to distribute food. Many in need of help are working families who can’t make it to Family Service, the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul or other organization during the work week. Mermel said she had been approaching local churches about using them as food distribution points at nights and on weekends.
While the framework of Be There Billings is taking shape, many fundamentals are still being worked out, including which organization will accept and distribute donations.
“We are going to try to implement as much as we can this summer,” Mermel said.