The Face of Hunger

Colorado is the 16th-wealthiest state in the nation. So why are so many of our neighbors still having trouble putting food on the table?

September 2007

Marylou Vigil Villada
Lunchroom Manager, Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services

With a dubious glance at the side of broccoli on his tray, a tiny boy in an oversized summer-school T-shirt slides down the bench attached to one of many long, juice-stained tables in Maria Mitchell Elementary School's lunchroom. Most school cafeterias echo with emptiness by mid-June, but this one hums with chatter and smells of pizza. Kids of all ages form a sloppy single-file line, like unruly miniature soldiers, getting ready to march through the kitchen and pick up their lunch trays. Almost all are Hispanic or African-American, a hundred dark heads and bright eyes waiting for their leader, lunchroom manager Marylou Vigil Villada, to dish up the goods. "There are a lot of children who don't get fed during the day," she says. "Sometimes we're the only meal that they get."

Villada, 57, has worked for DPS Food and Nutrition Services for 15 years. During the academic year, she runs the cafeteria at Valverde Elementary, a largely Hispanic school on West Alameda. But there's no summer vacation in Villada's schedule; instead, she shows up at Mitchell every day at 7:30 a.m. to oversee operations for DPS' Summer Feeding Program. The school is one of 24 "open sites" in Denver, meaning any child, age 1 to 18, can show up during designated hours and receive a free meal—lunch, breakfast, or both at some sites—no questions asked.

Villada takes great pains to make sure the kids get what they may not be getting at home. She orders from a food-service warehouse, ensuring that it meets government-mandated guidelines for nutritional value—no mystery meat and Twinkies on her watch. From shepherding the kids, to cooking the food, to serving it up, Villada puts in the summer hours because, as the philosophy around here goes, learning doesn't stop just because school does, and a hungry child can't learn. "If we can teach children the correct way to eat, we can have fewer problems during the school year," she says. "I have children who don't know potatoes are vegetables. The only way they'll learn is if we show them. This program is worth it if one child isn't hungry during the day."

Back at the table, the little summer scholar has finally worked his way around to the veggies. Naturally, they're the last to go, but by the time he zips off to the playground to join his friends, the tray is empty.