Meet "lunch lady" Phyllis Shaughnessy, who delivers free healthy lunches to the children most in need.
Great-grandmother Phyllis Shaughnessy has enjoyed a storied career in the food business, but she certainly hasn’t taken a traditional path. Earlier in her life, she was a nutritionist with Head Start. Later, she began providing food to people on the streets of Tacoma and even started a USDA lunch program in her now hometown of Copalis Beach. Today, she is simply the “lunch lady,” and spends her days feeding the hungry across the state of Washington.
“I believe that no one should be hungry,” she says, acknowledging that it’s an unfortunate reality. “Some people prefer not to recognize it, but America does have a hunger problem.”
According to the Seattle-based Northwest Harvest organization, one in five kids in Washington state lives in a household that struggles to put food on the table. The state is the 23rd hungriest in the nation, and one in seven Washingtonians relies on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
While Phyllis was at Head Start, she was responsible for educating kids on healthy eating and setting up the program’s menus. “We were so busy educating 4 year olds,” she says, “but we should have started the education process with the mothers so they learned how to prepare nutritious meals at home.”
After spending 11 years relying on the USDA feeding program, she realized too many children were still hungry in their communities, especially once the rules of the grants changed and distribution of the lunches became centralized in a single location. Despite her efforts, Phyllis didn’t feel her work at Head Start was having a big enough impact. Too many children were still hungry. “Kids were falling through the cracks. In rural areas like Copalis Beach, it’s impossible to have children meet at a set destination and be observed while they eat in a 20-minute time frame, which is what the existing programs required.” she explains. Without realizing it, Phyllis was laying the groundwork for a new program that would provide free lunches for kids during the summer. “I set out to find a way to get lunches to the kids at their houses instead of the other way around.” Green Lantern Lunches was soon born, and named after Green Lantern Pub, the Copalis Beach restaurant and first supporter of the program.
By the time school let out on June 20th, 2015, just a month after everything was put in place, a team of volunteers was assigned their routes and started delivering the program’s first meals. By the end of the summer, Phyllis and her team had delivered just over 10,000 lunches. This past summer, they delivered 16,919 lunches and launched a weekend program as summer turned into fall. Green Lantern Lunches now delivers 205 lunches every weekend. Not only does Phyllis deliver food, but she also brings “love and hope” to those she serves.
Whether caring for a sick daughter, her ailing mother, a young boy she adopted from Vietnam or the hungry kids of Copalis Beach, Phyllis is the ultimate caregiver.
She also proudly states that she rarely stops moving. Case in point: the only time she stopped working in her 75 years on this planet was to travel all of the United States with her husband, meeting and experiencing different people in different pockets of the country.
All of Phyllis’s work and personal experiences demonstrate a woman driven by kindness. She sees a problem and cannot resist getting her hands on it, even if others may choose to ignore it. Phyllis’s mantra is “community unity.” She says, “I keep sayings all around my house. I constantly try to remind myself… that walking in someone else’s shoes is a whole different world.”
Another favorite saying around the house is, “We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” But Phyllis’s own words are the truest, “You have to actually put yourself there and then you do what you can. You have to relate. You can’t just be nice. Nice is easy, but the work is different.”
The KIND Foundation, a separate 501c3 established by KIND Snacks, recently sought nominations for KIND People—individuals transforming their communities through kindness. Nearly 5,000 nominations were submitted, which proves kindness is thriving nationwide. Seven KIND People winners were selected, and The KIND Foundation is now distributing a total of $1.1MM in prizes to further their good work. These awardees are ordinary giants who have united their communities through selflessness and service. They inspire us to lead with empathy, forge an inclusive society, and live a life of purpose. Over the next few weeks, GOOD will be telling select winners’ stories in an effort to elevate kindness and its transformative power. Phyllis Shaughnessy will use her award money to help fund Meals on Wheels, affordable housing, and other efforts in her local community.
Top photo: Phyllis Shaughnessy, left, delivering lunch. Middle photo: Phyllis with her heart full. Both photos by: Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan