MARYSVILLE — The first to approach the counter on Tuesday was a girl with her dark hair gathered in a side ponytail by a bright orange hair tie.
She grabbed a milk and held up her tray for Heidi Camphouse to pile on cheese ravioli, green beans and diced pears.
Next came a boy in a baggy blue sweatshirt who was barely tall enough to pluck a partitioned white tray from the top of the stack.
The line continued to move. Camphouse filled trays and made sure no one sneaked away without vegetables and fruit.
At tables in the Shoultes Elementary School cafeteria, where the walls are painted with sharks, children chatted as they dug into their dinners.
The first meal, at 4:15 p.m., was for students in the district’s 21st Century Community Learning Center, an afterschool program that provides educational support.
The second meal was for anyone.
Around 4:45 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, the cafeterias at Shoultes, Cascade, Liberty and Quil Ceda Tulalip elementary schools open to the public. Those 18 and younger eat for free, no questions asked.
Adults can eat, too, but their meal costs $4.50.
At Shoultes, a family of five has been coming every day since Oct. 15, said Camphouse, who has worked in Marysville schools for 10 years.
The dinner program runs just like summer meals, said LaToya Morris, director of child nutrition for the district. It’s funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.
The sites are chosen based on the percentage of children who qualify for free or reduced price lunches, though the dinners are open to all.
This is the third year, Morris said. There are three hot entrees each week and one cold meal, usually a sandwich. Vegetables, fruit and milk are included.
In the past, the dinners have drawn between 20 and 50 people, depending on the day. Morris said it hasn’t been as busy yet this year, but she expects it to pick up as word gets out.
“We’re in an area where eligibility for free lunches is increasing. We need to feed kids,” Morris said. “A kid who comes to school and their belly is grumbling, how are they going to focus on what the teacher is saying?”
The meals also are a chance for kids to learn about healthy eating.
“They get food and extra time with their friends,” Camphouse said. “They all seem to like coming here … I’ll be here anyway. I like to have the company.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
To help with the program, adults can request a volunteer application from their local school or the district office. Food must be served by professionals, but volunteers can help monitor students and clean up.
The dinners take place on days when there is a 21st Century meeting after school, so there are some weeks when there will not be dinner. More information is online at www.msd25.org/food-service—25.