In 2014, Ezra Baker teacher Tricia Johnson told her husband, Pastor David Johnson of Grace Church in East Dennis, about a student who came to school hungry one Monday morning. Programs were in place to provide free breakfasts and subsidized lunches for those in need, but what about the weekends?
When the Johnsons found that there were other students in the same situation, they began packing weekend food supplies in the church basement that were given to students in two schools in Dennis. Today, Cape Kid Meals, the nonprofit organization they started, provides support in 27 schools across Cape Cod, assisting 740 students in one recent week.
Across the Cape, 33 percent of students qualify for free/reduced lunch at school, with more than 40 percent qualifying in Barnstable, Dennis, Yarmouth and Provincetown.
“I would say about 75 percent of people I talk to are shocked to hear there’s so much need,” said Tammy Leone, executive director of Cape Kid Meals. “Some people think, ‘This is the Cape, it’s a wonderful place to be and everyone’s doing fine.’ But this is a very seasonal economy, so when things shut down or when things are not as busy, that can be a risk for families, more so than most of us really realize. Some parents have to decide if they’re going to pay their rent or their mortgage, keep the heat on, keep the lights on or get food. It’s a very awful decision for families to have to make, but it’s one that is faced by a lot of the families we support.”
The goal of Cape Kid Meals is to provide weekend food bags to children in every Cape school who are at risk of not having access to enough food over the weekend. The group started with elementary schools and is working on expanding to support older students.
“Over the years I have heard stories of children packing up half of their school provided lunch so they can take it home and stories of them asking their peers to give them the food they were just about to throw away,” said Leone. “Instead of being able to be a kid and focus and learn they are often consumed with worry about when they will eat next. Weekends and school vacations result in students facing hunger anxiety instead of excitement.”
“The schools identify the students and there are no requirements,” said Leone. “If a student has qualified for free or reduced meal programs at their school and could use our support, great. If they are not participating in the free or reduced, but they still need support, that’s fine too.”
Barnstable Public Schools, in particular Barnstable Community Innovation School, Barnstable West Barnstable Elementary, Centerville Elementary, Barnstable United Elementary and Hyannis West have been involved with Cape Kid Meals since 2016. Currently 176 students in Barnstable are being served through Cape Kid Meals.
“We work with a certified nutritionist to help us make good choices,” said Leone. “We want to supply food that children like to eat, while being mindful of nutrition.
“One of our partners, Ring Brothers Marketplace, has provided an apple and an orange for every student in our program for several years. That’s tremendous. An apple and an orange is a luxury at this time with the cost of things, so to be able to provide fresh produce to children is wonderful.”
Cape Kid Meals’ key partners include:
- Ring Bros. Marketplace (fresh fruit)
- The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod ( packing bags)
- Cape Cod Express (delivers orders from Greater Boston Food Bank)
- Cape Cod Foundation
- Cape & Islands United Way
- Cape Cod 5
- Falmouth Toyota
- Cape Cod Church
Volunteers Are Key
Leone started as a volunteer with Cape Kid Meals five years ago.
“As a parent, I have always been concerned about children’s welfare and I had volunteered at my kids’ schools,” she said. “I started to think about other ways I could make an impact. I read about a program that was helping feed kids on weekends in Arkansas and then in 2016, I just luckily happened upon the person who was running Cape Kid Meals at the time.”
Leone started a Cape Kid Meals program at the elementary school in Barnstable that her three sons had attended. “I knew that the other schools in the Barnstable district had similar needs, so I reached out to them, and I have been packing and delivering for five schools in Barnstable since 2016.”
Leone, who became the group’s full-time executive director in July 2021, said that volunteers are the key to the organization’s success.
“We could not exist without our volunteers,” she said. “Every single week they show up to pack bags, deliver to our schools and help restock and keep our packing centers organized. They are the most incredibly dedicated group, and we are so lucky to have their support. Many of our volunteers have been with us for over five years.”
The volunteers work in packing centers at donated spaces in Falmouth, Mashpee, Osterville, Sandwich and East Dennis (at Grace Church). About half of the food is purchased from the Greater Boston Food Bank and the rest is purchased from discount retailers. Funding comes from foundation grants and donations from organizations, businesses and individuals.
“Cape Kid Meals understands what kids need and what they will actually eat, and they make it very easy for the schools to distribute food packages to students discreetly so that parents don’t have the stress of worrying about how to afford weekend meals,” said Jennifer Malone, a counselor at Hyannis West School. “Being able to provide families with food consistently allows us to build trusting relationships with students and their families.”
At the start of the COVID pandemic, demand jumped by about 25 percent, said Leone.
“When we started managing our Strategic Emergency Response Fund during COVID, they were one of the first organizations that we reached out to,” said Kristin O’Malley, president and CEO of the Cape Cod Foundation. “We’re just super impressed with the speed and agility with which they expanded their programming, and the partnerships that they have with the schools and so many other community organizations. I feel like they’re the little engine that could.”
The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod is another long-time supporter.
“As part of our charitable giving, it’s incredibly important for us to support young people in every way we can, which is why we continue to provide funding to Cape Kid Meals year after year,” said Christina Bologna, assistant vice president, community relations officer. “Food insecurity is a huge need on the Cape, and it’s become larger with the increasing strain of the pandemic. It’s truly gut-wrenching to think about kids going hungry, which is why it’s so important that organizations like Cape Kid Meals exist. We want to support them as much as we can, and hopefully together we can end childhood hunger on the Cape.”
While Leone notes that the high cost of living and seasonal employment structure of life on the Cape are unlikely to change, she is heartened by the increased collaboration between various programs and groups.
“Seeking out ways to provide food resources in a manner that is done thoughtfully, leveraging partnerships and working together to identify solutions will hopefully help decrease hunger on the Cape, ” she said.
For more information, visit capekidmeals.org.