Packard summer program gives families healthy lunches

Norbert von der Groeben/Packard Children's description of photo

Pediatrician Lisa Chamberlain has lunch with volunteer Yajaira Garcia,11, after they helped to hand out free healthy lunches at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in East Palo Alto on July 10. The lunch program, which concluded on July 27, is sponsored by Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

The summer break can mean several weeks of hunger for children in East Palo Alto who depend on school lunches from September to June. This summer, however, the story was different — for the children as well as their families.

In a five-week community collaboration, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and the Ravenswood School District made sure homeless and at-risk families got a healthy lunch five days a week.

"We've been seeing so much food insecurity over the last three years with the recession," said Lisa Chamberlain, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine and physician lead for the Packard Children's Pediatric Advocacy Program. "Last fall and winter it was getting so much worse. That's when we decided to try the lunch program. We've never tried anything on this scale before."

With patients from two extremes — some of the wealthiest in the state and some of the poorest — Packard Children's is working to create a dialogue across the divide, and building relationships to beat hunger for children and their families.

Chamberlain worked closely with Ruth Woods, director of student services for the Ravenswood district. "I work with these kids year after year, so I know which families are really in need," Woods said. "We started by identifying specific families, and then began including other families with children via word of mouth."

"The schools ask for help," said Chamberlain, "and we've got a lot of resources on the west side of 101. This is a time when communities need to draw together and support each other."

Through the Ravenswood/Packard Children's partnership, more than 500 meals a day were served to families classified as homeless, meaning they live in a shelter or double up with another family. The program ended on July 27, and served a total of 13,000 meals.

For the project, Chamberlain and her team contracted with the local nonprofit Revolution Foods to provide lunches. Revolution Foods makes healthy, locally sourced meals for kids living in poverty. The focus isn't just on feeding the kids, but on feeding them well.

Among those who helped distribute the food nearly every day of the program were six sixth-grade girls from Willow Oaks school — Giselle Munoz Ruiz, Brenda Ramirez, Briana Linarez Maldonado, Yajaira Garcia, Keily Romero and Vanessa Poutoa. "It feels good helping other people," said Munoz Ruiz.

Woods echoed that sentiment, noting that the experience of the volunteers helped build a stronger feeling of community,

National statistics show that more Americans than ever are on food stamps. The Department of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program, provides some funding to help keep school lunch programs for low-income children operating in the summer. However, parents or older relatives may themselves be hungry, and this can deeply impact the family's health and well-being. "I knew this program had to be for the whole family," said Chamberlain. "So we had to raise our own money to ensure that we could do a program that served the whole family."

Identifying which families to serve was easy. "I do registration for the district," said Woods, "so I know all the homeless families and the families who are in crisis." Woods and Chamberlain started by reaching out to those families, and then broadening the program to include any local families with children who needed a meal.

Woods said the program also helped increase communication and quality time among family members. "With this program, families get to eat together," she said. "We take this for granted — families sitting down and eating together. That doesn't happen a lot with these families. So we started talking to families about taking the food home, sitting down with their kids and talking about their day. This provides communication, and really brings families together."

Among those who benefited from the program were mothers Amy and Carla, who brought their sons Roy III ("Tres") and Manny with them to pick up food at Cesar Chavez school one afternoon. "This is great because we have enough food and we can bring it home with us to feed the other kids who live with us at home," said Amy. "It's healthy, with great portions, and sandwiches that keep you full. And I'm glad I can take more than one because my 14-year-old can eat at least two sandwiches."

"This program is wonderful," said Carla. "It's feeding people, but it's also teaching them nutrition, and raising cultural awareness."

"My favorite is the chicken wrap," said 8-year-old Manny, who was born at Packard Children's.

"I've never seen a program like this, as far as feeding the whole family," said Carla. "It's just a tremendous outreach."

Julie Greicius is a writer for the communications office at Packard Children's Hospital.

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