School’s out for summer! While that can be a welcome break for some kids, others who rely upon school lunches may feel differently. That means it’s the busiest time of year for The River Food Pantry’s mobile meals program, Munch.
“The River Food Pantry launched Munch in 2016 to bridge the gap that exists when school lunch is not available,” said Helen Osborn-Senatus, The River’s Director of Operations.
The program initially began with a focus on serving school-aged children eligible for free or reduced school lunch, and since then has expanded to anyone facing food insecurity. This year another stop was even added at a southside apartment to serve seniors and individuals with disabilities who aren’t physically able to visit a food pantry. Still, about three-quarters of the people receiving Munch meals are children.
As of mid-July, over 10,000 mobile meals have been distributed in 2022 through the Munch program. And with the recent hike in prices for gas and groceries, The River as a whole is experiencing a spike in new households (45% more than last year from January-July) using its food pantry and other services.
These staggering numbers are just some of the reasons agent Chris Venden chooses to support the nonprofit and Munch program. Her neighbor has also been a very involved volunteer with The River, so she’s been able to hear about the impact Munch has made, especially for kids attending school virtually throughout the pandemic. “It made me think that if we can’t feed our people, we have bigger problems than Covid because kids are not being able to go to school, which can be a safe haven for them,” she said.
Everyone is welcome to participate in Munch. You don’t need to register or bring an ID – just show up! “We don’t want to add any barriers,” Osborn-Senatus said, especially because one of their goals is to build a sense of community. “If you’re hungry and this can be helpful to you, there’s a meal we hope you enjoy. We’re trying to get food to people in a useful, accessible, and sustainable way.”
The healthy meals can be taken home or enjoyed alongside new and familiar faces near the neighborhood distribution sites. Osborn-Senatus shared that when the weather is nice “there is definitely a lot of conversation,” and at a few community centers “the kids hang around outside and eat at a playground and trade snacks from bags.” Becca Carpenter, The River’s Communication Manager, said that they have also focused on serving the Spanish-speaking community with support from the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County, as well as employees of MMSD and NewBridge Madison.
Prior to the pandemic, Munch focused solely on serving north side neighborhoods. Thanks to more support and donations – including a large grant from 100 Men of Dane County to offset the cost of the van, bags, food, and materials (see video) – Munch has been able to add east side and south side routes. Volunteers with the Munch van deliver to a total of 15 neighborhoods in Madison six days in the summer. The Munch schedule will be adjusted for the school year and will include holiday breaks and no school days.
Another change because of the pandemic is how meals are packaged and distributed. Previously, all five components of the meal (choice of sandwich, fresh produce, grain side, sweet side, and beverage) were set out and people would pick by hand what they wanted. Since Covid started, individuals can still choose their sandwich, but the sides and drink are prepacked.
A ready-to-eat meal is not the only thing to take home. Often, other types of fresh produce like onions, potatoes, and carrots are available, as well as personal care items, school supplies, books, hand sanitizer, and masks. Stops are efficient at about 20 minutes in length, so be sure to check out the distribution schedule for the times and locations at riverfoodpantry.org/services/munch.
This summer, donations to Munch will be matched up to $45,000! For example, $2 provides a meal for one person, $60 for 30, and $700 for 300! You can also sponsor a weekend ($1,400 for 700 meals) like Chris. Whether you host a food drive, sign up to volunteer, donate paper or plastic bags, or make a financial contribution, your support to The River is appreciated! To learn more, visit riverfoodpantry.org.