[su_heading]By Kevin Mercer[/su_heading]
Shouts of joy, shrieks of delight and eruptions of laughter filled the air.
“That thing was fun!” “Can I go just one more time?”
Exclamations like these emanated from a bouncy house in western Chapel Hill, while a pickup soccer game was underway in the adjacent field. The Bouncing Bulldogs were inside. There were even UNC athletes.
But most of all, there was food. A lot of it.
It was July 7, and we were at Hargraves Community Center in Chapel Hill, the location of a carnival celebrating the first month of Food for the Summer, a new initiative in Chapel Hill and Carrboro that provides free lunches to students within Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) during the summertime.
Representatives from a number local nonprofits, roughly 30 volunteers and 83 campers with the Hargraves Community Center Summer Program descended on the center that Thursday afternoon to hear Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger announce that in the 14 weekdays since the program had launched on June 14 until the end of that month, Food for the Summer had served 10,237 meals to students 18 years of age or younger who needed them.
There were still 30 more meal delivery days planned for 2016 until the end of the program on August 12 (school starts August 29 and the school cafeterias must close for staff training).
Monday through Friday at 11:30 a.m., a wave of around 35 volunteersarrive at Northside Elementary School, McDougle Middle School and Frank Porter Graham Elementary School, ready and eager to transport lunches from the school cafeterias to 20 different sites around Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
They stay at their designated sites until around 2:00 p.m., interacting with the kids or allowing them to take age-appropriate books free of charge to enhance their summer reading experience.
“Not only are they getting free meals but they’re also having the opportunity to bond with volunteers, to bond with staff of the program, to bond with other kids in their community,” said India Dunn, a Food for the Summer site coordinator.
The bonding experience is positive for the volunteers as well.
“I try to live a purposeful life, so if I can give something back to the community, I try to do it every chance I get,” said Ashini Fernando, a student at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. “I find it very rewarding.”
Just last year, there were only four sites that fed 901 meals to some of the 3,366 students eligible for free and reduced price meals in CHCCS. In June of 2016 alone, the program served 6,873 lunches.
But what led to this growth?
Food for the Summer wasn’t always known as Food for the Summer. The program began four years ago when the pastor of six years at Varsity Church, Chad Simpkins, and his church began addressing a pressing need in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community.
Simpkins learned that 28 percent of the students in CHCCS were food insecure, and his church began serving four sites in the community.
He soon connected with Tamara Baker, the Communications Manager and Program Director of No Kid Hungry North Carolina, a federal charity organization with a local branch in the state.
“Our sole mission is to connect children with the underutilized federal nutrition program,” Baker said of the program, which began in 2011.
Simpkins also connected with Liz Cartano, the director of dining at CHCCS for Chartwells, the company that contracts with CHCCS to provide the school district with meals throughout the year, including the summer.
But it wasn’t until Hemminger made the program a priority in response to a community petition that the program expanded.
“I knew that we have the resources and felt certain that it was simply a matter of having someone, like the mayor, bring the people and resources together,” Hemminger said in an email.
And bring them together she did. An association of nonprofits, government organizations,Varsity Church, the YMCA and CHCCS, 12 parties in all, collaborated to plan and organize Food for the Summer, as well as bestow it with its name.
Together, the partners enhanced the marketing of the program. Publicity about Food for the Summer abounds in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. And the community has answered. As of mid-
July, only three volunteer spots remain for the rest of the summer.
When the program began, volunteers were needed to fill 712 positions for that same timeperiod.
The goal of Food for the Summer is to distribute 1,600 meals every day, more than half of the 3,366 students in the district that are eligible for free and reduced price meals.
But Simpkins said only 350-450 meals are distributed each day currently.
The lunches at the carnival included a chicken sandwich, a bowl of carrotsand cartons of apple juice and chocolate milk. The contents of each meal vary daily, but everything that a lunch would include during the school year is included during the summer because the same company — Chartwells — is responsible for making them.
Food for the Summer is just one local branch of the federal Summer Food Service Program, administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was first created in 1968 to address childhood hunger in the summer months.
Dunn said the families of children who receive free or reduced price meals during the school year are suddenly burdened with providing another daily meal when summer arrives.
“We’re able to provide a free meal and it’s right there in the community, so it’s easily accessible to them,” Dunn said.
The USDA completely reimburses Chartwells for the price of meals ($2.75-$3.00 per lunch) for programs like Food for the Summer. But much of the money allocated by the USDA for the Summer Food Service Program is wasted. About $2.7 million from the USDA goes unused every day in North Carolina, according to government data.
Baker said many of the 118 school districts in North Carolina run programs similar to Food for the Summer in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Durham Public Schools (DPS) is also heavily involved in the Summer Food Service Program. In a county where 62 percent of children are eligible for free or reduced price meals, DPS cooks for 104 sites throughout the county, said Phil Day, the supervisor for the school district’s summer program.
The distribution sites include YMCAs, schools, faith-based organizations and community sites. Nonprofits may apply to be meal sites, but they do not collaborate with DPS like in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Unlike with CHCCS, DPS is provided with an annual summer budget based off the number of meals served the previous year, and the school system is responsible for making and delivering the food.
In 2015, 23 percent of the 22,107 Durham students eligible for free and reduced price meals were fed during the summer months. In 2016, Baker said the percentage is 28.
“Durham Public Schools does a great job through their child nutrition team of meeting their need on a much higher percentage than most school districts around the state,” he said.
The percentage of economically disadvantaged students DPS serves is behind only Tyrrell, Madison, Gates and Bertie counties.
Day said the food prepared in two DPS cafeterias is also different from the food prepared during the school year — a significant difference from the Chapel Hill district’s arrangement with Chartwells.
DPS is not required to meet the same nutrition standards in the summer. As a result, the meals are richer in calories and sodium content, and more of the food is pre-packaged.
But Day said he believes it is better to feed as many kids as possible rather than let some go hungry.
“The most important thing is making sure that you feed the students of your district,” he said.
DPS will prepare roughly 4,500 meals for distribution each day from June 20 until August 12, Day said. That number is impressive. But $61,125 allocated for the lunch program is still currently unused in Durham County.
Alerting the surrounding community to the program DPS offers is no small task, and Day and other nutrition officers stay busy throughout the school year notifying guidance counselors, nurses and other nonprofits in the area to the summer program that DPS offers.
During the 2014-2015 academic year, Orange County Schools had 6,631 students in the school district who were eligible for free or reduced price lunches.
That number amounts to 44 percent of all students in the district, still pretty far below the North Carolina average of 60 percent of all public school students (or 850,000 children).
Six sites throughout the county had an average daily attendance of 901 students, or 14 percent of the county’s need met. This left $20,556 of federal money unused each day.
The summer lunch program with Chatham County Schools (CCS) sponsored 21 summer food sites in 2015.
But Robin Brooks, the director of School Nutrition Services for CCS, said there are only six sites in Chatham County this summer.
Three such sites are reading camps, which are designed to provide reading remediation. Each site includes various activities, but Brooks said CCS was only responsible for getting the food to the sites and not for actually operating them.
Chatham County is similar to Chartwells with CHCCS, because CCS makes the exact same lunches in the same school cafeterias as during the academic year. But CCS does not contract with Chartwells and instead operates the summer lunch program from a budget in the same way DPS does.
CCS is completely reimbursed for the cost of making the food. Still, CCS left $15,272 available for use each day in the summer of 2015, spending only $796 daily.
In the 2014-2015 school year, CCS had 4,479 students eligible for free or reduced price lunches, below the state average of 60 percent at 53 percent. Yet the average attendance each day during the summer last year was 222, leaving 4,257 students who were food insecure at risk of going hungry during the summer.
Only 5 percent of the need was met, well below the state’s average of 15 percent of need met, Baker said.
The Summer Food Service Program faces many difficulties, not the least of which is trying to build awareness.
“One of the biggest challenges with summer meals is that organizations where kids are don’t even know that they can participate in these federal nutrition programs and get meals for free,” Baker said.
Her organization, No Kid Hungry N.C., has been working tirelessly since its inception to combat this unawareness.
Katie Hug, the program coordinator for Food for the Summer, said that each site calls in to request however many lunches they will need that day, which may vary widely depending on the day.
This creates a surplus of prepared lunches and a loss of money.
Hemminger said in an email that another problem many programs encounter is a lack of continuity.
Organizations may come together to make a program successful in one year, but may have to terminate their partnership the next.
Despite these and other challenges, school districts throughout the state and the country work diligently to provide children with proper nutrition.
“The data is very clear,” Baker said. “Nutrition is one of the greatest contributors to a child’s success in academics, and then therefore their learning potential and then their earning potential as a result.”
A study by Deloitte, a multinational professional services firm headquartered in New York, found that elementary and middle school students who participate in the School Breakfast Program score 17.5 percent higher on math tests and are less prone to disciplinary issues or absenteeism.
“If you’re hungry, you’re distracted and looking for food,” Fernando, the public health student, said.
“If you’re not, then you can focus on something else, so I think it’s very important to have at least one good meal a day.”
Almost all of the school districts in North Carolina have some kind of summer lunch program.
Simpkins said the USDA is studying Food for the Summer very closely to determine whether it can be a pilot program for other communities, not just throughout North Carolina but throughout the country.
Food for the Summer and other similar programs in the Triangle are far from perfect. None meet the totality of the need in their communities. Yet all meet some of it.
Heath Brittin had a need, and Food for the Summer certainly met it.
“Hey, I got five kids,” he said at Hargraves Community Center the day after the carnival. “It’s hectic trying to cook for every last one of them, but coming over here (Hargraves Community Center) saves more energy, more power, and it helps them get food.”
Brittin can be seen any weekday around noon bringing his five kids to the food site at Hargraves Community Center. When told that a summer lunch program existed in 2015, just not to the degree that it does now, it was news to him.
Brittin said it was difficult to prepare lunches for his kids last year, but this summer he said it has been a massive benefit to him and his family. He was quick to say he will participate in any program CHCCS offers next year.
“It’s dead on T,” he said with a smile.
“Everything’s been working out good.”