Arts & CultureKiddie Dope

Summer Programs Bring Free Lunches to the People

I’m going to kick off this column with a shout-out to all the working moms out there.

And no, don’t start to give me crap about how all moms are “working moms.” Yes, dealing with small people who have no concept of time and refuse to put on shoes in less than 10 minutes is a harrowing, all-consuming, full-time job. I’m talking about those of you who have to be showered and dressed and presentable to other people at a designated time, every day, and get paid for it. Just know that we’re halfway through this barren, unscheduled midpoint of the year, and you’ve almost made it. Go, you.

For a large portion of parents, working or not, summer is also a source of stress, because it means kids are no longer guaranteed at least two square meals a day. When you’re living below the poverty level—as do around 33 percent of Clarke County families with children, according to Census data—the school year helps give your budget some breathing room, since kids can eat breakfast and lunch at school. (Starting this fall, ALL Clarke County public school students can get lunch for free, thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.)

But there are two programs this summer that are helping to fill that gap, one run by the Clarke County School District and one by the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia and Action Ministries.

The school district has two options for families. Throughout the summer, you can go to Gaines Elementary School or Clarke Middle School on weekdays between 11 a.m.–1 p.m., where kids can eat lunch for free, and adults can pay $3.50 for a meal. And for the first time, the school district is also running a program that brings the meals to the people. The “Seamless Summer Mobile Stops” program packs up lunches and brings them to low-income neighborhoods throughout the county. These meals are free to children up to age 18.

When the summer lunch program launched a couple years ago, it obviously filled a need for low-income parents while school was out. But because lunches were served at specific locations, transportation was an issue. By taking the food to the people, that problem is solved.

I had a chance to catch up with one of the buses as it made stops in neighborhoods off of Gaines School Road. Yes, there might be student housing along that road, but tucked behind it are apartment complexes and duplexes that house hundreds of working-class families and lots of kids. As the little school bus circled through Pinewood Apartments, kids began running to the bus and lined up along the sidewalk as CCSD employees Scotty Randolph Sr. and Jartito Bailey unpacked the hot and cold portions of the sack lunches.

“This is helpful to the community, and it helps the parents too,” says resident Latasha Steward, who was guiding her three kids (one in a stroller) through the parking lot to the bus. Fellow resident Melissa Carey agrees, adding that with her three small children, getting out of the house even for a run to the store can be a hassle. When the lunches arrive on the bus, she and her kids can go for a stroll, picnic near the neighborhood’s playground and continue their day without the added stress of driving.

“I have three kids, so this prevents me, on hot days or rainy days, from getting them all out,” Carey says. “And the people are really nice.”

Along with the mobile stop, Action Ministries hosts a daily educational program at Pinewood and eight other neighborhoods around Athens. Staffed by interns or volunteers (many UGA students), they play educational games or do art- and science-based projects next to the playground.

CCSD’s summer lunch program works alongside an expanded program through Action Ministries and the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia. This summer program, called Food2Kids365, is made possible through two one-time grants that allow bag lunches to be delivered to the same neighborhoods served by CCSD’s bus. These bags are distributed on Fridays so the kids will have food throughout the weekend.

This program is an extension of the Food2Kids program, which collects food throughout the school year to send home on the weekends with kids from low-income families. Beegee Elder, childhood nutrition manager for the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, said they are delivering about 450 bags a week, with funding for 600 bags.

“Our mission is to end childhood hunger, and the fact that we’ve been able to provide weekend meals in addition to hot meals during the week [from CCSD] brings us much closer to filling the gap,” Elder says.

You know those ice cream trucks with the crazy music? I have to admit, I cringe when they drive through my neighborhood, mainly because I never have cash, and yet my daughter always hits me up for a Popsicle, anyway. But watching the kids come running up to a little school bus filled with hot, free lunches puts the ice cream truck in a totally different perspective. Here, moms are happy to see their kids get the food, and it doesn’t stress them out, since they don’t have to cough up some money. And the lunch is good for the kids. It’s a summertime win-win.