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Tuesday, August 11, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer meals: Spokane food trucks feed homeless teens

A few months ago, school leaders heard from Spokane Valley homeless teens who were worried about finding regular meals this summer.

That’s changed under an alliance of food truck owners. A new program gives free meals to 58 homeless students who use punch cards for food at the trucks during the 11-week break.

Each student can receive five hot meals a week, or 55 total, during the summer. Schools identified an at-risk group of mostly high school students who lack family support. Among the youth, 45 received bus passes to go where the vendors are located.

“This started right when they got out of school,” said Tony Epefanio, owner of Mixed Plate Food Truck & Catering and president of a food truck association. Epefanio has heard teens are regularly using their punch cards, and he plans to get an official count by the season’s end.

“How awesome would it be if we don’t hear about any kids going hungry this summer?”

The students can use the punch cards at any of more than 30 participating food trucks.

Spokane Valley Partners and the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association Gives Back nonprofit worked with schools to launch an extension of Spokane Valley Partner’s school-year food program.

The collaboration also includes Giving Back Packs, a Spokane nonprofit that provides supplies to the homeless. The group paid for the 45 bus passes from Spokane Transit Authority to cover summer rides for those teens with transportation issues.

Spokane Valley Partners created punch cards and instructions. Students can look up trucks locations.

Cal Coblentz, Spokane Valley Partners CEO, said the agency puts food into schools during the academic year for needy students to take home on weekends. The agency also stocks food pantries in some schools. Its Food for Thought serves 22 schools and about 500 students during the school year.

But that stops when school does. Around April, school leaders shared with the agency what homeless students were telling them.

“The schools came to us and said some of these students are starting to panic a little bit,” Coblentz said. “During the school year, they get a student bus pass. They get meals on weekends. They get their meals in the school with breakfast and lunch, so at least their basic needs are met.

“As soon as they’re out of school, then all those resources go away. For some of these students, it’s critical because we have identified over 50 teenagers who are legitimately homeless in the Valley with no family or who are separated from families, just out on their own on the streets or surfing couches.”

He said this summer extension of Food for Thought is a trial to see how it works. It was organized quickly with the help of the nonprofits and business owners. Spokane Valley Partners didn’t have a summer food program budget other than food provided to about 150 students in summer school.

The agency encourages the homeless teens it works with to get the free summer meals at Spokane County schools offering breakfasts and lunches for youth, but that program doesn’t take care of an evening meal, Coblentz said.

Food trucks are most active in the summer, and members of its association were looking for a way to give back to the community, Epefanio said. He heard about the homeless teens at a roundtable of nonprofits.

A social worker connected Epefanio to Spokane Valley Partners. He also contacted his friend Rick Clark, founder of Giving Back Packs.

“For the 11 weeks they’re out of school, the kids can get to us, and they have bus passes,” Epefanio said. “What value are hot meals if they can’t get to us? I’ve spoken to some of the students, and they’re very appreciative.

“As a pilot program, if we can get some traction on it, we hope to scale it up next year with the support of other organizations. There is no way kids shouldn’t have food, especially if they don’t have a place to lay their heads.”

Food truck owners are donating the cost of a meal, typically priced at $10 or $11. They aren’t receiving a subsidy, Epefanio said.

Association members post signs on food trucks about the program for feeding youth, he said.

Pizza Rita gave 300 vouchers for pizza, and two dessert trucks are offering treats that don’t count against the teens’ punch card meals. Additionally, three businesses with food trucks and restaurants allow the youth to choose either option.

Epefanio said a number of the teens received meals from food trucks during Hoopfest. Other popular sites are the Spokane Valley Farmers Market and events in Kendall Yards.

“By coming to food trucks, they’re feeling like they are part of the community,” Epefanio said. “They can enjoy a meal and an outing.”

Coblentz said he’s already talking to community and business leaders about what to do for upcoming years if the pilot works. Also this summer, the agency is packing bags with two- to three-day food supplies for pickup by teens at places such as libraries and Arby’s locations.

“These are kind of baby steps for us,” he said. “Tony stepped up big time, and the other food truck association membership did, as well, by being willing to give meals away.

“Most of the monetary contribution comes from the food truck association because it’s probably close to $30,000 worth of food that they’re giving away to kids this summer.”

The pilot project is helping the agency get over a hurdle because it normally relies on schools to distribute necessities to kids who are low-income or homeless, Coblentz added. Food truck owners stepped in to meet a need in more ways than one.

“This gives the kids the ability to go to an event and not feel like there is this huge barrier.”

Although the 58 students are mainly in two alternative high schools, Mica Peak and Dishman Hills, a handful are scattered elsewhere in Spokane Valley, and a few are in middle school, he said.

“At least we know they’re eating, and there’s the transportation piece.

“When Giving Back Packs stepped in for that, it was a huge boost. For a lot of these kids, they’ve had a lot of trauma; they’re in counseling and need support systems in place. Without transportation, it’s difficult for them to even make their counseling appointments. This has helped them stay connected.”

When the punch cards were distributed, organizers urged them to keep them close at hand.

“Those are very valuable,” Coblentz said. “We told the kids don’t lose these because they’re like cash; it’s the same with bus passes.”

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