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North Kitsap Fishline offers Food For Thought

POULSBO — For some North Kitsap students, the lunch line is a lifeline.

Nearly one third of students in the North Kitsap School District receive free- and/or reduced-price lunches, a designation determined by their household’s annual income. For some of these families, putting food on the table is a struggle.

Schools can feed students during the week but not on weekends. To keep children from going hungry away from school, North Kitsap Fishline began a program in October to discreetly send meals home with needy North Kitsap students on Fridays.

The Food For Thought program hasn’t reached every student who needs it, but it’s made life easier for many, Poulsbo Elementary counselor Susan James said.

“They at least know they’ll have enough food for the weekend,” James said.

The Food For Thought program began serving six families in October. Now it serves 60 across the district and Fishline Executive Director Karen Timken said it may reach 100 next school year. ShareNet food bank of Kingston will begin a similar effort, called Food to Grow, at Wolfle Elementary, where more than 50 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced- price lunches.

In March, Food For Thought was recognized with an excellence award from Food Lifeline, the state’s largest hunger relief group. Fishline will dedicate a section of its expanding Third Avenue center to the Food For Thought program.

“That’s just how important it is,” Fishline Executive Director Karen Timken said.

The program began with counselors at each school identifying students who needed food on weekends.

Students rarely tell counselors they’re not getting enough food so staff have to watch for clues, said Michele Kaster, a counselor at Pearson Elementary in Poulsbo where 14 families are using Food For Thought.

“They’ll say dad just lost his job or mom lost her job, or we’re eating ramen again,” she said. “They usually don’t come right out and say it.”

Kaster and other counselors called families directly to ask if they wanted to enroll. Kaster said many parents find it embarrassing to accept help caring for their children, so she lets them know the program is discreet. There isn’t even paperwork to fill out.

“I tell them it’s OK, there’s no judgement,” Kaster said.

Still, some families that can’t afford enough food for their children still turn the program down, James said. And some families with the means to buy food still take advantage of the free program.

“That’s the only frustration,” James said.

Counselors pass along their list of needs to Fishline, where food bank volunteers fill meal bags each week. The meals have to be nutritious but easy enough for a first-grader to prepare. They usually include juice, fruit, nutrition bars and instant entrees like pasta.

Volunteer drivers deliver the bags to counselors’ offices each Friday afternoon, where students pick them up before heading off to the school bus.

“We try to keep it as private as we can,” Kaster said.

Food For Thought is thriving now, but there were challenges along the way.

It took time for schools and families to become comfortable with the service, Timken said. It was months before it was widely used at some schools. Food For Thought is also expensive. Each bag costs about $10 to assemble and Fishline will have spent more than $19,000 on the meals by the time school releases for the summer.

Summer vacation presents its own challenge, as children won’t have school lunches to rely on for two and a half months. Families can pick up food at Fishline, but Timken said she also hopes to have a summer meal program in place by 2011.

So far, Fishline and ShareNet are the only food banks in Kitsap County offering weekend bag meals to students but Timken believes it will spread to other school districts.

“I would hope it would go everywhere,” Timken said.

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