WASILLA — Kids Kupboard, a local nonprofit that offers free meals to children across the Valley and beyond, is currently drawing from their reserves to continue offering takeaway meals for families that are still seeking socially distant support to feed their children.

According to Kids Kupboard founder Lynette Ortolano, the financial hurdle is a result of the USDA’s requirement for onsite congregated eating in order to receive reimbursements. She said during a normal school year, they serve onsite congregated meals through their various mobile sites across the community, but due to the pandemic, they were able to utilize waivers to offer meal pickup as a way to accommodate for social distancing. Now, the waivers are up and the normal onsite meal consumption requirement is back in effect.

“Kids have to stay onsite and eat with us in order for us to claim any kind of reimbursement from USDA for the meals that we serve,” Ortolano said. “The USDA is saying that COVID is over and you’re required to have kids congregate if you want to claim the meals to have any reimbursements... The majority of families we work with aren’t comfortable with their kids being congregated.”

Ortolano said they’ve decided to continue offering takeaway meal services without any reimbursements while continuing to serve meals in congregate settings. She said it’s a stressful strain on their operation, but a necessary step to take to ensure meals make their way to children in need.

“We’re just going to keep doing it for as long as we can afford to do it,” Ortolano said. “We’re gonna continue doing the grab and go’s because so many families are relying on us… The congregate requirement is being enforced in the time when it’s still a little uncertain about COVID, the spread of it, and the risks.”

Despite the current challenges, there’s plenty of positive things going on with Kids Kupboard.

“Starbucks in Wasilla got corporate approval to let kids come inside Starbucks and have our meals… Starbucks employees will hand out our meals, and kids can stay there and eat. That is unprecedented. It has never happened before and that’s pretty neat,” Ortolano said.

Ortolano said they received a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to build a full commercial kitchen.

“That’s definitely going to give us a lot more options as far as production goes,” Ortolano said. “Our staff prepares hundreds of meals every day fresh in our kitchens… We try to make meals available in as many core areas as possible so parents know where to find us. We have other deliveries we make to site partners that are still doing congregate… But for those families who aren’t comfortable allowing their kids to participate in a congregate meal site, we still want to make sure they still have access to fresh healthy meals every day.”

Ortolano said the community is invited to attend their Battle of the Businesses event Wednesday, Sept. 15 from 4 to 7 p.m. at Snider Park. She said there will be a full day of food, fun, and family-friendly activities like face painting, raffles, and an inflatable bounce house. Local businesses will compete in an inflatable jousting tournament.

“Bragging rights and a trophy goes to the winning business team. It’s gonna be tons of fun,” Ortolano said.

For more information about Kids Kupboard, visit kidskupboard.org.

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at jacob.mann@frontiersman.com

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