If there is going to be a summer food program to provide meals for food insecure children in Pullman and Whitman County, finding volunteers is one of the biggest challenges to overcome, according to a local panel fighting hunger in the area.

The panel of four spoke Tuesday in front of community and business leaders at the monthly Pullman Chamber of Commerce General Membership Luncheon at Gladish Community and Cultural Center.

They were asked why Pullman and other communities do not have a summer food program to provide meals for those who need it when the school year ends.

“Summer feeding programs in Whitman County are very far and few between, and it is super sad what’s going on in the summertime,” said panel member Paige Collins, Whitman County Council on Aging executive director. “These kids are hungry all across this county.”

Collins believes there would be enough financial support to build the programs, but the challenge is finding available volunteers to oversee them. She said the number of volunteers is “tapped out” because they are too busy working at the food pantries or carrying out other food-related efforts like senior meals.

“There isn’t anyone left to do it,” Collins said.

Panel member Linhda Sagen, who leads the Pullman Schools Pantry Program, said Pullman also lacks volunteers to run a summer program for children.

Additionally, there are challenges with transportation. She said Pullman’s geography makes it difficult to have a summer food program at a centralized location that is easily accessible, noting it may be too difficult for children to travel to the location where food is being served.

Sagen said locating it on Sunnyside Hill, for example, might be too challenging for children living on Pullman’s other hills.

“We’re not a real walking-friendly community for kids,” she said.

Sagen said developing a summer food program is one of the Pullman Schools Pantry Program’s long-term goals, and she suggested one solution could be creating a mobile food pantry.

In addition to needing more volunteers to address hunger in Whitman County, one panel member said communities need more farmers to donate their produce to pantries and other charitable causes.

Guy Spencer, a local organic farmer who donates produce to pantries, said it can be difficult for small farmers to have the financial freedom to donate some of their harvest to charity. That is why he would like to see more government assistance to encourage them.

“It would be nice if the federal government would help us provide produce for our community and give small farmers more incentive,” he said.

Panel member Joe Astorino, Community Action Center’s community food coordinator, said it is vital for nonprofits and other local organizations to coordinate together to improve food access.

One of the inherent challenges in Whitman County is the long distance between many towns.

Some residents have to travel great miles to reach a grocery store, which takes valuable time and money.

The Community Action Center, which organized a study on food insecurity in Whitman County called the Palouse Tables Project, is working to improve this coordination to develop food sharing and food delivery to the farthest reaches of the county.

One idea is for a mobile farm stand to sell fresh food — preferably from local growers — in rural cities and towns at an affordable price.

The CAC is working toward securing a grant to fund a vehicle that will distribute fresh produce throughout the Palouse.

“We’re really trying to design something that’s really accessible and build around these unique issues that our region has,” Astorino said.

Anthony Kuipers can be reached at (208) 883-4640, or by email to akuipers@dnews.com.

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