In Colorado, school vacation means more kids go hungry

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Photo: Fruits and vegetables
Fairmeadow Elementary School second grade student Jonathan Cheng, center, looks at fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program in Palo Alto, Calif., in December 2010.

For many kids, the holidays mean gifts and dinner tables full of good food. The story may be different for one of every six children in Colorado who live in a poor family.

During the school year, about 350,000 kids in the state depend on free breakfast and lunch served at schools. A statewide program provides meals and snacks for kids during the summer, but not during the holidays.

The problem is apparent at a hotline run by Hunger Free Colorado in Centennial. People can call the number to find food pantries, figure out how to sign up for federal assistance and help paying heating bills. With schools closed and food pantries struggling to meet demand, Kathy Underhill, who runs Hunger Free Colorado, says it’s harder for people to find food.

Mary Ann McLendon, who runs the nonprofit's hotline, has had to deliver the bad news.

“Right now there are unfortunately no food baskets available,” McLendon says. “They only did that at the beginning of the month and very few organizations provided that.”

Related: How to eat on a food stamp budget of $4 a day

There are usually enough food baskets to go around at Thanksgiving but fewer during Christmastime. The reason for that is more donations of food flow in during Thanksgiving, but as Christmas approaches, there are more donations of toys.

Another issue is that many families who are new to poverty have a hard time asking for help.

McLendon says she knows what that's like. She lost her job at Raytheon during the recession and was unemployed for three years. Eventually, she ran out of money to buy groceries for herself and her daughter. McClendon remembers the first time she went to apply for food assistance from the federal government.

“I looked around and figured I really didn’t belong there,” McLendon recalls. “I was really kind of thick-headed and didn’t want to do it, but I forced myself... because I had a daughter and I wanted to do what was best for her.”

McLendon says she worried her daughter would suffer without access to things like fruits and vegetables, which can be more expensive than processed food. She says her experience makes her even more determined to offer support to callers -- along with resources.

“I can relate more when someone calls in and says I’ve never been through this and don’t know how to go in and ask for help and I’m able to let them know they’re not alone,” McLendon says.

This story is part of our ongoing exploration of Colorado kids who are living in poverty, how it affects their lives and our common future. We'd like to hear your ideas about about what can be done about child poverty in Colorado. Share your thoughts through our Public Insight Network.