Northwest News

Crafty plan makes sure Eatonville kids get school lunches

About a dozen Eatonville women are using the creative arts to make sure local children have their school lunch accounts paid off and can eat without fear of embarrassment.

After learning that some children were eating skimpy lunches —or even going without lunch— because their school accounts were unpaid, the group of yarn crafters began a project to cover “negative” lunch accounts.

The group auctioned off homemade knit and crochet projects in February, collecting $400 for the Eatonville School District lunch fund.

The group, which calls itself “Yarnbombing for Lunches” on Facebook, plans a repeat performance this summer, only “bigger and better,” said local mom Tillie Vuksich.

The effort started a few years ago when Vuksich heard from two of her children at Eatonville Middle School that their lunches had been taken away due to negative balances of less than a dollar and replaced with a “modified” lunch containing a sandwich, fruit or vegetable, and milk. She contacted the school and eventually district administrators with her complaint.

She heard some other children in the Mount Rainier foothills town were still missing lunch; they were too ashamed to take a brown bag after having their food trays seized for lack of payment.

Vuksich and her friends decided to use their art to change the system, and it apparently worked. The district’s superintendant says lunch practices have been changed and that the district has set up a special account for donations toward negative lunch balances.

The women organized several “yarnbombs” last year, using their materials to decorate trees, lamp posts, telephone poles, benches and bike racks in high-traffic areas to generate visibility for the Eatonville Art Festival.

At the close of the festival, yarnbombing materials were turned into blankets and auctioned online at a starting bid of 99 cents, almost all of them selling for $25. All profits collected went to the district’s lunch fund.

The momentum spread beyond the group of women. The Rev. Darren Crowell, pastor of the Living Word Assembly of God church, reached out to his congregation to collect a $70 donation to help pay off negative lunch accounts.

This summer, the yarnbombers plan to cover about three dozen lamp posts on Eatonville’s Mashell Avenue from July 24 to Aug. 3. The women’s handmade projects will then be auctioned off in hopes of meeting their goal of putting $500 toward lunch accounts for the 2015-2016 school year.

Fellow mom and yarnbomber Karen Carr, who recently took on the role of lunch room worker at Columbia Crest Elementary, explained that the problem doesn’t solely lie with the district. Some parents are unaware that payment is due or forget to send a check.

But Carr said previous school practices needlessly embarrassed children.

Eatonville Superintendent Krestin Bahr said she can’t speak to how such situations were handled before she took the position two years ago, but on her watch, kids are never denied lunch due to nonpayment.

“I don’t want food thrown in the garbage ... we’re going to feed kids” she said.

Bahr said the district has put a stop to the seize-and-dump practice at the few schools where it was reported, and has begun implementing emails and automated calls to alert parents when balances are low. Officials are also working to establish online debit/credit card payment methods.

Meanwhile, the district’s new food service director has been meeting with school staff to create a unified understanding of lunchtime protocol.

According to the hunger-relief organization Feed America, there are 122,040 underfed people in Pierce County, 44,840 of them children.

Eatonville schools participate in the federally assisted meal program, providing free lunches for eligible K-3 students and 40-cent lunches for grades 4-12.

About 40 percent of Eatonville district students qualify for the federal free and reduced program, compared to 46 percent of students statewide.

“It is really important for us to make sure that all of our families that can apply for free or reduced lunch do,” Bahr said. “We need to make sure all families are served. Our job is to connect with families and see how we can best serve their needs, to make sure all families have all the information they need.”