Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Four years ago, Stephanie Caouette looked at her empty pantry and wondered how she’d feed her three children.
She had just moved to Las Vegas in June with her three kids after she separated from their father and left behind a home, car and stocked kitchen. She had no job and could barely cover her first month’s rent and utilities in a small apartment complex near the Stratosphere.
To make matters worse, her food stamps wouldn’t kick in for 30 days because she wasn’t homeless. She needed work, but more importantly she needed to find food for her children.
“I was just scared of everything; I didn’t want to lose my children,” Caouette said. “I was trying to figure out a way to make ends meet so we could still be a family of four.”
Then, on her fourth day in Las Vegas, she was introduced to Stupak Community Center, which offered free meals through the federal Summer Food Service Program. In addition to helping parents like her feed their children, the center also offered a camp where she could drop off her kids while she looked for work.
It was the stability she needed to get back on her feet.
“It was pretty rough. We had never lived like that before,” Caouette said. “(Stupak) relieved a tremendous amount of pressure because I couldn’t afford to pack a lunch every day.”
The Summer Food Service Program, sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ensures children 6 to 18 years old nationwide receive breakfast and lunch. In Southern Nevada, there are more than 150 locations sponsored by nonprofits, community centers and churches that serve these meals to thousands of children during the summer.
The months between school years can be some of the toughest for single working parents or low-income families, said Nevada Department of Agriculture program manager Karen Vogel. Parents sometimes struggle to find money or time to provide their children with the meals they eat at school while classes are in session. For many of the children, a breakfast and lunch through the program is the only meal they’ll receive for the day.
In a county where thousands of kids receive free or reduced-price lunches at school, the summer food program is a necessity, Vogel said.
“Many of them have no food at home or limited amounts of food,” Vogel said. “So this can be an extremely critical program for children as they grow physically and as they prepare to go to school to learn.”
The summer program has been around for more than 15 years. The department provides sanctioned guidelines for the meals and then reimburses program sponsors for every meal they serve.
In Southern Nevada, 13 sponsoring agencies prepare and distribute the meals, including the Culinary Union, Three Square and the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Nevada. The meals come in folded cardboard boxes and contain a combination of meat, grain, vegetable, fruit and milk. Items include tacos, turkey and cheese sandwiches, apples, orange slices, and baggies of carrots or celery sticks. Some even include ranch dressing to make sure the children eat the vegetables.
For a neighborhood with few grocery stores — like the one surrounding Stupak — the meals provide children with fresh fruit or vegetables many can’t get at home, said Sherry Alexander, the center’s program manager.
Alexander said the center feeds about 20 to 30 children a day with meals made by the Culinary Union. Some kids are from the neighborhood and others are part of Stupak's summer camp.
On a recent Tuesday at Stupak, the prospect of lunch sent the 20-plus kids into a scramble to put away action figures, stack chairs and clean up the playroom. After washing their hands, the children tore into box lunches that included tacos, orange slices and carrot sticks.
The group included Caouette’s three kids — 10-year-old Aidan, 8-year-old Keaton and 6-year-old LillyMay — sharing Oreos and drinking juice they brought from home while they munched on their tacos.
The meal program and camp have helped Caouette get back on her feet. She now has a job at University Medical Center and a full pantry at home that is often overstuffed with water, fruit snacks and other food. She can now afford to pay the fee to have her children attend the camp, which she wasn't able to do when she moved to Las Vegas. The camp is open to all children, regardless of their family's income level.
She doesn’t need to rely on the lunches anymore, but she appreciates that the program gives her kids a nutritious meal.
“I can’t even tell you how great it is to trust people at Stupak and know (the children) are safe and fed,” Caouette said. “Even now that I work, they don’t have to go there, but I choose to have them go there because what else are they going to do in the summer?”