Joan Qazi, Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network

“There is no excuse for any child to be hungry…ever!” says Linda Belton, Executive Director of Small Miracles, a Wenatchee area non-profit that specializes in community outreach to empower families to help themselves, including making sure that the basic needs of kids are met.  This is the fourth summer that Small Miracles has been providing free lunches for any school-aged children who want to eat at one of their nine feeding sites.  From Rock Island to Lee Elementary in East Wenatchee and from Lincoln Park to Pennsylvania Park in Wenatchee, these summer feeding sites are located so that hungry kids can walk to them, sit under a shelter and eat a nutritious, noon-time lunch provided by volunteers who truly care. 

If you think offering free food to kids is easy, then think again. It takes a small army of volunteers, willing community partners, and a well-organized administrator to make sure there is enough food that meets health and nutrition standards at the right place and time, when the number of hungry children coming to eat can change every day.  Leading the charge Monday to Thursday from June 22nd to August 27th is Linda Belton and her Small Miracles Board volunteers, Suzanne Davis and Melissa Taylor along with Denise Elliot.  This reliable crew makes sure the food is ready and coordinates the many volunteers who start showing up at Eastmont Junior High at 11:30am to pick up the cooler of bagged lunches, the cooler of milk cartons, the hand-washing supplies, sharing box, and locator flag for each feeding site.

Last summer, Small Miracles served over 2100 lunches but efforts in 2015 have been greatly expanded to meet the nutrition needs of even more children who have few other options to eat until working parents get home.  Key to a successful summer this year has been subcontracting the food buying and preparation out to Wenatchee School District (WSD) Food Services.  Linda explains that this was a fortuitous pairing since WSD didn’t want to host a multi-site feeding program, but they were well-equipped to buy and prepare nutritious foods, some even grown locally:  “Their farm-to-school program was appealing to us to know that they were buying fruits and vegetables from local farmers and Small Miracles has an established reputation for being able to staff multiple sites and get the kids to come out and eat the lunches.” So each afternoon, Linda calculates the number of children served at each of the nine feeding locations and uses that to estimate the likely number of lunches Small Miracles will need to serve the following day.  She sends that information to WSD Food Services and they start the meal prep for the next day’s delivery of bagged lunches to the Eastmont Junior High kitchen where the Small Miracles crew makes sure each cooler has the right number of bags and milk cartons.  “We make sure to send out some extra lunches to the two sites that are furthest away and keep an extra 20 lunches in the kitchen so if we run short at any of the feeding stations, we can deliver them right away,” says Linda.  This way, there is very little food waste and if there are any of the bagged items that kids don’t want they can put them in the sharing box where others can take them.

Most importantly, the kids like the food, even the cut fresh vegetables.  The July 2015 menu included chicken salad wraps, sunflower seed butter and jelly on bagels, or turkey and cheese sandwiches along with fresh veggies and local fruits such as cherries or apricots.  On a site visit to Lincoln Park in August, children were asking the adult volunteer why carrots are good for your eyes and a lively nutrition lesson ensued. At other sites, the Wenatchee Public Library provides their book mobile and story time librarians to read to the kids at lunch.  Linda credits her volunteers with making all the difference to this valuable anti-hunger program, “they are happy and engaged with the kids everyday!”  Certainly, the dedication of volunteers from Junior Service League and various employers who trade their lunch hour for serving a meal to hungry children is clear.  Add to these workers, the teachers, the parents, the retirees, the boy scouts, and even the youth like Houston, a young man who helps out because he met hungry kids at his Middle School.   As impressive as all these volunteers are, it is hard to imagine that Wenatchee Valley Summer Feeding program would be able to feed up to 500 children per week without the leadership of Linda Belton and her Small Miracles Board of Directors.  Linda knows all the volunteers by name and greets them with questions about their family, their latest vacations or recent house moves, etc.  Her enthusiasm for making sure that children are not hungry bolsters all those who participate and keeps them coming back. 

“I have big dreams going forward,” Linda says. “I want to get a mobile feeding station to serve the many kids at the migrant camps or trailer parks in our community.”  Small Miracles is building partnerships with the South Wenatchee Homeowners Association and Hispanic organizations to build communication pathways and trust with parents so that they allow their children to attend the lunch programs.  They are working with teachers who would like to open a couple Eastmont school libraries at the summer lunch sites so that kids could have other options for free activities as well.  And, they want to coordinate with community partners to help fill backpacks with needed food and supplies for students during school breaks.  “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to give a sack of groceries to the parents who accompany their kids on Thursdays to our lunch sites, so they would be guaranteed food for the weekend?”  Linda’s dreams might sound unattainable to some, but those who work with her know that if anyone can make it happen, Linda can…with a great group of volunteers and some Small Miracles!