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Weekend meals help hungry kids

Volunteers packing at Cape Kid Meals headquarters in Cotuit.
Elspeth Hay
Volunteers packing at Cape Kid Meals headquarters in Cotuit.

I’m standing with Tammy Leone in a large open building in Cotuit full of food and bustling with volunteers. Everyone’s here packing bags of prepackaged foods for the non-profit Cape Kid Meals.

"The program was started in 2014 by Pastor David Johnson of Grace Church," Tammy explained. "His wife worked at one of the elementary schools and had heard about a child coming into school hungry over the weekend. And through his church, he's done a lot of trips and done a lot of missions overseas and in other countries and didn't realize there was such a hunger problem in our own community."

In fact, Barnstable County has one of the highest child food insecurity rates in Massachusetts. Today, Tammy Leone is Executive Director of Cape Kid Meals and says it’s grown quite a bit since Pastor Johnson first reached out to the elementary schools in his community of Dennis.

"They started that fall with a backpack program. So the bags get put into the schools at a designated area and then the teachers or the guidance counselors or adjustment counselors in the schools, then to distribute them to the students," she explained.

"Typically they'll, you know, give them put them in their backpacks when they're at a special and zip them up and they go home with the students on Fridays."

Tammy Leone, Executive Director of Cape Kid Meals
Elspeth Hay
Tammy Leone, Executive Director of Cape Kid Meals

Since Cape Kid Meals started, the program has expanded from 2 schools to 33, and it now serves 70 percent of all public schools on the Cape. Many of the organization’s volunteers are former teachers, who have seen the impacts of hunger on local kids first hand

Molly Sproul lives in Centerville and noticed kids coming to school hungry at the beginning of her career, which is over 25 years ago.

"I can remember vividly one little boy standing at the doorway after Christmas vacation and he just took a deep breath and sighed and said, 'Now I can eat.'"

This moment has stuck with Molly ever since. When she retired from teaching several years after Cape Kid Meals was established, she knew that’s where she wanted to spend her free time. Now, she packs and delivers an average of 30 bags of weekend food to feed elementary-aged kids at Barnstable Community Innovation School every week. Ray Bell of Sandwich says he started volunteering with Cape Kid Meals after attending a Thrive Conference at Cape Cod Church in Mashpee

"Thrive is a Cape-wide conference for Christian communities and they had a sign-up table, and I thought the need was great, and I signed up," Ray said.

I asked Ray what his role has been since he started volunteering.

"Actually, primarily tearing down the boxes so they can get them out of the way and keep doing what they need to do."

Ray is talking about the cardboard boxes most of the food arrives in — meals have to be shelf stable and packaged to make it home with the kids. Tammy Leone says like many local food pantries, Cape Kid Meals is a partner of the Greater Boston Foodbank.

Thank you notes from participants.
Elspeth Hay
Thank you notes from participants.

"We get about 40% of our food from them. We are lucky to get some free products and greatly reduced products. The rest we purchase at different retail bulk industry stores such as Box or Walmart, BJ's. And the funding comes from amazing generous donors from our community and some grants that we've applied for."

Tammy says the need for this program has increased significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — over twenty-five percent since March of 2020. Still, Cape Kid Meals remains free to any student at a participating school who a teacher believes needs extra meals. There’s no application process, and no other requirements to participate.

"We did an outreach early on to all the elementary schools, to let them know that we exist. And if there was something their school students could use. And since then, as we grow, we're going to older schools, upper-level grade level schools, if you will, and letting them know the program exists and see if there's a need at their school," Tammy said.

"So it's really sort of outreaching to them, or sometimes they have heard from other schools that they know have our program and they've reached out to us to see if it's an opportunity for them to do it at their school."

Today, Cape Kid Meals brings food to children at 24 out of the Cape’s 29 elementary schools, and Tammy Leone says they’re constantly making efforts to reach more kids and to keep improving the quality of their food. Volunteer Marie Elliot of Harwich says she showed up today because she has three kids of her own.

"It's very personal to me, you know? No kid should have to go hungry."

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.