Kids R Kids Combats Food Insecurity

Free meals, activities for Beacon’s youth

By Sommer Hixson

Of the 3,200 students in Beacon’s five schools, approximately 44 percent are eligible for reduced-price or free meals. That’s approximately 1,400 kids whose only meal of the day might be from a cafeteria. Funded by the USDA and administered by the State’s Department of Education, the National School Lunch program operates during the academic year, from September through June. What happens to these kids in the summer, when the schools are closed? In 2011, Jackie Bucelot-Mills first asked herself that question and has been providing a positive solution since then.

Jackie Bucelot-Mills at Davies South Terrace with Kianna Powers and her mother, Shanna
Jackie Bucelot-Mills at Davies South Terrace with Kianna Powers and her mother, Shanna

“My children went to Beacon schools. They graduated from Beacon High School, but I don’t remember ever hearing about a summer meals program,” said Bucelot-Mills, who was looking for a new volunteer experience after retiring as an accountant. “As I looked over the course of my life, what was most meaningful to me, it almost always had to do with children. I’ve been involved in hunger-related issues and child advocacy my entire adult life.”

Bucelot-Mills contacted the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Nutrition Advisory Committee, through which she met Al Muhlnickel, director of food service for the Poughkeepsie City School District. Muhlnickel generously offered to prepare all of the meals for the first year in Poughkeepsie and transport them to Beacon, if she could secure a location.

“I started out serving about 25 to 30 children per day at the Beacon Community Resource Center. By the end of the summer, I was serving about 80 to 90 children,” she explained. “I wanted to have multiple sites throughout the city because I felt strongly that any child who needed a meal should be able to safely walk to get one.”

Now in its fourth year, the Kids R Kids Feeding Program operates out of six open sites in Beacon: Tompkins Terrace (194 Tompkins Terrace); St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (850 Wolcott Ave.); First Presbyterian Church (50 Liberty St.); Davies South Terrace (52 Davies Terrace); Beacon Community Resource Center (23 W. Center St.); Tabernacle Church of Christ (483 Main St.).

Head staff from Beacon High School’s cafeteria prepares the self-contained meals, which are delivered in coolers by volunteers for lunch at each location from noon to 1 p.m. Any child 18 years old and under is eligible, Monday through Friday, through Aug. 22. Registration is not required, nor is income verification.

Last year, Bucelot-Mills added daily program activities at each site in order to attract more kids and increase attendance: Movement Mondays (indoor physical activities), Terrific Tuesdays (crafts), Wellness Wednesdays (nutrition), Thinking Thursdays (books and board games), Friendly Fridays (special guests from the community).

Learning nutrition and making healthy choices

Children at Davies South Terrace receiving their free summer lunch. 
Children at Davies South Terrace receiving their free summer lunch.

For three years, Common Ground Farm and the Green Teen Community Gardening Program have partnered with Kids R Kids to provide weekly cooking demonstration programs with fresh food. Every Tuesday, the Green Teens assist Common Ground Farmers with harvesting vegetables from the farm and from their own garden for the mobile market they operate during the summer. Common Ground chef Katie Key is stationed at Davies South Terrace every Wednesday, while fellow chef Evelyn Garcia travels to all of the sites.

“What we do with Kids R Kids exposes children to new foods and various methods for food preparation and allows children in our community the opportunity to cook, grow and eat fresh vegetables throughout the year,” said Common Ground’s Sember Weinman. “Providing kids with these opportunities not only supports life-long healthy choices, but invites our children to become environmental stewards as they grow into adults.”

“We have a rule here,” added Bucelot-Mills. “You don’t get to tell Ms. Jackie you hate it if you’ve never, ever eaten it.”

Making ends meet, one cupcake at a time

Kids R Kids started a weekly backpack program last March at South Avenue School in conjunction with the Hudson Valley Food Bank. The program, which was partially supported by a grant to the Food Bank from Shop-Rite, ran through June but only allowed for 30 backpacks per school year (a total value of $5,000). Five times that many students at South Avenue are enrolled in the reduced price or free lunch program.

The Kids R Kids van delivering free summer lunches in Beacon.
The Kids R Kids van delivering free summer lunches in Beacon.

“We want to do it again at South Avenue this fall, starting the first week of October,” continued Bucelot-Mills. “The schools are encouraged to raise more money, through the PTA for example, but that’s a LOT of cupcakes to sell.”

Rising to the challenge, “For Goodness Bake,” a bake sale held last year in Beacon in which some of the Hudson Valley’s most celebrated amateur and professional bakers and confectioners participated, raised more than $3,000 in one day to help Kids R Kids offset its operating costs and raise awareness for the program.

‘Until all are fed’

In 2013, the Kids R Kids Summer Feeding Program served 7,000 lunches. The 2014 season ends Aug. 22.

“Often, the lunch I hand these kids is the only food they’re getting until they see me again the next day, particularly at the end of the month when there are no food stamps left,” said Bucelot-Mills. “When I look at these numbers I know we’re barely scratching the surface. I show roughly an annual increase of 8 percent, which is good, but what helps is that we have been at the same sites for three summers and the same partners and volunteers are working with me every year, which has increased the level of trust in the community. Certainly the management companies at the housing complexes really see this as a good program for their residents.”

Photos by S. Hixson