It takes two jobs for Yolanda Daniels to support her family. She is a single mother to three children, one in high school and the other two in elementary school.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, her circumstances changed. She lost one of her two jobs last autumn, making it difficult to pay for housing, utilities, groceries and the other day-to-day expenses that come with raising a family.
A Pew Research study shows that 1 in 4 Americans has lost a job due to the pandemic, and 35% of lower-income families have had to seek food assistance.
A friend told her about The Children’s Lunchbox, which she says has lifted a huge burden.
“When it got really hard, my mother said I should sign up for food stamps,” Daniels said. “I applied, but I made just a little too much. But I still didn’t have enough to cover expenses.”
That in-between space is where so many families can fall through the cracks. The Children’s Lunchbox, a program of Bean’s Cafe, has played a vital role in feeding hungry children since 1998, but in 2020 it stepped up its efforts even more.
Buoyed by a $125,000 investment from Providence Health & Services Alaska in partnership with Providence Alaska Foundation, and generous donations from other individual and corporate donors and grants, Bean’s was able to expand the Children’s Lunchbox to meet the growing need of families during the pandemic.
“We put those funds into what we call pantry packs,” said Diana Arthur, development and communications director for Bean’s. “These pantry packs have taken us from feeding only kids to feeding entire families. They cost approximately $10 each, and each pack provides a shelf-stable meal for a family of four.”
While still focused on feeding hungry children first, the expanded meal program can now help entire families, said Lisa Sauder, Bean’s Cafe CEO.
“With the funds that were made available through COVID, it’s helped us accelerate a vision we’ve had for years,” she said. “Everything, for us, is rooted in food security and making sure people have shelter.”
Since March of 2020, Children’s Lunchbox has provided 254,000 meals to families and children in Anchorage. That number increases daily. Fresh meals are assembled each week and packaged in vacuum-sealed containers. The shelf-stable pantry packs are packaged by volunteers in an off-site warehouse, following COVID-19 safety protocol, or by volunteers at home. The pantry boxes contain a breakfast, lunch or dinner and can be picked up via mobile pick-up or delivery at designated locations throughout town.
Patricia and Ray Ashcroft and their two children packed about 80 pantry packs from their home in South Anchorage. Ashcroft, a nurse, said the volunteer work is a reminder to her own kids that not everyone is as fortunate as them.
“We don’t want our kids to take things for granted,” she said. “And it’s important to us that our help stays in the community.”
Daren Cole is the logistics lead in charge of delivering the Children’s Lunchbox pantry packs and fresh meals. He stands outside the Spenard Recreation Center in front of a large white Children’s Lunchbox van —recently purchased with Nourishing Neighbors funds — and waits for clients to arrive. Snow is falling heavily, and his jacket is covered with large, white flakes. A stack of blue tubs is filled with fresh meals, and inside the van are dozens of pantry packs. When clients drive up, he doesn’t even need to ask them what they need. He’s come to know most everyone.
“They’re pretty much all here because of COVID,” Cole says. “But we don’t ask questions. There’s no paperwork, no questions. We just hand them out until they are gone.”
Retired teacher Connie Bradford said she is especially thankful for the grace with which the Children’s Lunchbox program is operated. She had been self-sufficient all her life until the pandemic came, all but eliminating her substitute teaching income. She cares for three grandchildren and another child at her home, and she picks up the pantry packs and meals weekly. She wishes she didn’t need to, but current times have forced her to seek help.
“It’s been very beneficial the way it’s organized, so I can depend on it,” she said. “And the quality of the food is outstanding. We get fresh fruit, we get fresh vegetables, and most important, it is food the kids like to eat. Now I can pay the mortgage and the electric and all those utility bills that keep going on.”