At the end of the school year, children who receive free or reduced lunches in public schools are often left without the food they need. In the Flathead Valley, Farm Hands – Nourish the Flathead helps fill this gap by providing hot lunches on weekdays throughout the summer, but many children need food assistance on weekends, too.
Mailee Windauer, a high school senior from Columbia Falls, has started a new endeavor, Walk in New Directions, or Project WIND, to address this issue. Project WIND provides bags of groceries for school-aged kids in need to take home on weekends, fighting hunger among the approximately 1,000 children in the Columbia Falls District who receive free or reduced lunch during the school year.
Project WIND began only a few months ago, when Windauer came up with the idea for the project at a Leaders of Tomorrow United Way meeting in May. At this meeting, “we were talking about ways that we could help students in the valley,” Windauer said. Providing food for students in the summer came up.
After the meeting, Windauer knew she wanted to do something to help kids in her district get the food they needed during the summer. The next day, she went to Tamara Sundberg, the director of the Columbia Falls Child Assistance Team (CFCAT). CFCAT works to provide assistance to children in need in Columbia Falls. When Windauer approached Sundberg, she was about to meet with Farm Hands about a summer lunch service. She invited Windauer to come along.
“I seriously can’t get over how fast it was,” Windauer said. “[The project] was up and going within 24 hours.”
With the help of Farm Hands, Windauer and Sundberg identified an issue. In collaboration with North Valley Food Bank and Whitefish School District, Farm Hands has a lunch program that serves prepared meals at various locations in the Flathead every weekday. This program could help kids during the week, but there was still no assistance on weekends.
Project WIND aims to solve this problem with its weekend food bags. Windauer and Sundberg buy food at local grocery stores and assemble reusable bags full of non-perishable food like pasta, oatmeal, tuna, or cereal. They give them out at the locations where Farm Hands serves lunch during the week. Kids can take this food home with them and prepare it when needed, including on weekends. In its first three weeks, Project WIND has distributed dozens of food bags to students at the Farm Hands lunch program locations.
In order to raise money for the project, Windauer hosted a spaghetti feed fundraiser at her father’s restaurant, Tien’s Place. She also started a GoFundMe for the project, which can be accessed at https://www.gofundme.com/f/wind-walk-in-new-directions. Between these sources, Windauer raised almost $3,000 to buy food for the project.
By adding to the lunch program provided by Farm Hands and the North Valley Food Bank, Project WIND is helping to fill a previously unmet need in the community. Through the combined efforts of these programs, students who may have struggled to eat during the summer now have the assistance they need.
“During the summer there’s no way for the kids to get food, especially outside of the lunch program that Farm Hands is providing,” Windauer said. “So that’s what I wanted to provide.”
Lunches are served Monday-Friday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at Horine Park in Columbia Falls, 12-12:30 p.m. at Boys and Girls Club in Columbia Falls, 11:50 a.m.-12:20 p.m. at Martin City Fire Hall, and 12:30-1:00 p.m. at Canyon Community Church in Coram. Lunch is served at the Canyon School in Hungry Horse on Fridays from 11:15-11:45 a.m. Project WIND’s food bags are distributed on Wednesdays at all of these locations.
If you’d like to donate to North Valley Food Bank, you can do so on their website at www.northvalleyfoodbank.org or by mailing a check to North Valley Food Bank, 251 Flathead Avenue, Whitefish, MT 59937.