Siuslaw School District cafeteria staff members Vicki Prociew, Diane Larson and Scarlet Craspay hand out free lunches to youth June 23 as part of the district’s mobile van lunch program.
photos by Jack davis/Siuslaw News
Food Services Manager Dave Bitner prepares fruit for lunch meals.
School district offers free lunches for youthA maroon van pulls up, the back doors open and free lunches are handed out to anyone 18 and younger. No questions asked.
Under the supervision of Siuslaw School District Food Services Manager Dave Bitner, this new mobile lunch program runs Monday through Friday this summer for local youth.
Food for Lane County ran the program for years, according to Bitner, but because they are located in Eugene, managing the Florence program became problematic and the program’s manager asked Bitner and the school district to take over.
“It sounds daunting,” Bitner said, “but in reality, it is just a continuation of what we have done all year.”
“We have been serving food to 1,400 kids all year and we are just continuing to serve them in the summer,” added Bitner, who was hired to run the district’s in-school food service program at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year.
“This is a banner year for the Siuslaw School District in food service,” he said. “Not only did we become self-operating in our school year program, but now we are adding on a summer food service program.”
Currently the lunch van schedule is 12 to 12:15 p.m. at the Miller Park parking lot, 1651 18th St.; 12:20 to 12:35 p.m. at the Siuslaw Public Library west parking lot, 1460 Ninth St.; and 12:40 to 12:55 p.m. at the Florence Food Share/Lutheran Church parking lot, 2190 Spruce St.
Free lunches are also available at the Siuslaw Elementary School breezeway at 2221 Oak St., from 11:30 to 11:45 a.m. The program also serves free breakfasts at this location at 8 a.m.
The meals all meet strict federal guidelines of food group and portion requirement and the program is under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Department of Education.
The cost of the meals is reimbursed by the federal government.
Siuslaw School District qualifies for the free lunch program because of the high percentage of low-income families with children living within the district.
In addition to the mobile van lunch service, the program provides about 175 lunches daily to children attending the Twilight and the Boys and Girls Club summer programs.
The mobile van lunch program is off to a slow start with about 16 to 18 youths currently taking advantage of the program. Bitner believes that this is because not many people are fully aware of the program.
For the time being, the low mobile lunch numbers do not pose a concern, but Bitner sees a potential problem looming if the van numbers don’t pick up.
Unlike the Boys and Girls Club summer program that runs to Aug. 19, the Twilight summer program ends July 19. After that there will be between 50 to 60 children in the Boys and Girls Club program.
“I need a minimum number of participation to get the reimbursement money that allows me to pay for my staff and pay for the food,” Bitner said. “For me that number is 100.”
There is more at stake than just not serving free lunches to community children if Bitner can’t sustain the 100 lunches per day minimum.
“The program has great advantages for us as a district and for me as their food manager because it allows me to keep my employees working,” Bitner said. “Most of these employees would need to get a summer job. This allows me to keep them working in the summer time and keep our program rolling.”
Shutting down the kitchen for a few months also would make starting back up in the fall more difficult.
“I don’t have to clean out all my coolers and then restock them. Instead, I just keep that inventory rolling. It has a lot of advantages for us and for the community,” Bitner added.
The idea of the lunch van driving through neighborhoods, similar to the old ice cream truck concept was considered, but then rejected.
“Oregon Department of Education mandates that we have specified serving sites and times,” Bitner said. “That is why we are where we are when we are.
“The hope is that those numbers at the library, Miller Park the Food Share and possibly other locations will grow to 50 or more per day. If that doesn’t happen, we will do everything we can to keep the program operational through the summer. But getting to 100 meals a day after July 19 solves all our problems,” he added.
Bitner is looking for volunteers to help get the message out about the free summer lunch program.
“Any child 18 years or under gets a free meal. There are no restrictions. It doesn’t matter where they are from,” Bitner said.
For more information, call Dave Bitner at 541-933-0911.
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Siuslaw School District, mobile van, summer lunch program, youth, Food for Lane County