Thousands of poor and low-income children across Western North Carolina rely on schools to get least at one square meal a day, but with classes now out for summer, there’s no easy solution for keeping kids fed.
“This question has been asked many times, and we’re trying to come up with a solution for the problem,” said Beth Stahl, MANNA Food Bank youth programs coordinator. “It’s scary to know they don’t have nutrition on a regular basis. We’re trying to fill in the gaps, but it’s a slow process.”
Throughout North Carolina, about 700,000 children qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year, but only 53,000 or about 8 percent get free meals during the summer, said Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Ervin said. “I believe we can do better than 8 percent.”
The United States Department of Agriculture reimburses approved programs $1.85 per breakfast, $3.25 per lunch and 76 cents per snack.
But nonprofits, schools or other programs have to be in charge of preparing the food and keeping up with the paperwork required for reimbursement.
“It’s definitely one of the most needed federal programs,” Ervin said. “But it is the most underutilized program.”
In Macon County, 66.6 percent of the 4,239 students enrolled in public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. But no programs are in place to ensure those 2,825 children get good nutrition during the summer.
“It’s because we don’t have organizations that are interested or aware of the program,” Ervin said. “They just haven’t stepped up to the plate.”
Jackson, Swain and Haywood counties all have free meal centers and programs to reach kids who need food. But the number of kids fed during the summer through these programs still falls well below the number eligible for free or reduced meals during the school year.
In all three counties, any child up to 18-years-old can simply go during the right time to an open meal site and get a free meal. Proof of lower-income status isn’t required in counties where more than 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunches during the school year.
In Jackson County, 52 percent or about 1,500 to 1,800 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year, said Jim Hill, director of child nutrition. But in summers past, free lunch and breakfast programs have served only about 250 meals a day.
This year, Hill anticipates that number will double, he said.
“There is a major effort in North Carolina to get the feeding numbers up, and we want to be a part of that,” Hill said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort to get a lot of people involved.”
Led by Jeffery Vickery, senior pastor at Cullowhee Baptist Church, volunteers are delivering lunch to children at four free meal sites in the Tuckasegee, Cullowhee and Canada communities every weekday this summer to expand the reach of the program to more remote areas.
“These kids are spread out in little pockets everywhere,” Hill said. “You want to take it right to their neighborhood, and that’s the tough part.”
Vickery met with school officials to determine which areas had the poorest children and estimated the number of meals to prepare based on how many kids get off at nearby school bus stops.
“This is filling a gap that no one else has,” Vickery said. “The children needed the food. We are just a conduit willing to do it.”
Staff at Smoky Mountain High School prepares lunches that meet strict government nutrition guidelines, and Vickery and his crew deliver them.
Last week — the first week the four satellite sites were open — Cullowhee Baptist Church distributed 151 meals, Vickery said. He anticipates the number will increase as more children learn about the sites, he said. On Fridays, the students also get bags of food to take home for the weekend.
“We said going in that if there were four or five kids who didn’t go hungry this summer, it would be a success,” Vickery said.
Even with the new meal sites, about two-thirds of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year aren’t taking advantage of summer feedings.
“The big challenge is that there’s other children we can’t get to,” Vickery said. “The difficulty is knowing we could feed twice as many if we had other people willing to host a site.”
Although Jackson County has seen a great improvement in the number of children getting lunch during the summer, Swain and Haywood counties only have one location where meals are served to the general student population.
In Swain County, 1,230 of 1,880 or 64 percent of enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced price meals during the school year, said Diane Shuler, Swain County school food service director.
Swain County Schools will offer breakfast and lunch at the Swain Middle School cafeteria seven weeks during the summer, starting next week.
Last year, between 140 and 150 kids came to the middle school each day to get food. Most of those children attend summer camps. Few come in off the street, Shuler said.
Although Haywood County has several meal sites, only one — the Pigeon Community Center — is open to the general public. The rest serve students in specific summer day camps.
The Pigeon Community Center also offers a summer camp for eight or nine weeks each summer and usually enrolls between 37 and 47 children, program coordinator Lin Forney said.
Forney said the day camp focuses on children whose families can’t afford other summer camps. For the entire summer, the camp costs $200. But any child up to 18 years old can come in for breakfast or lunch, Forney said.
Besides a handful of children just down the street from the center, relatively few children come in for the meals, Forney said. She said she never sees children from other parts of the county like Canton, Clyde or Maggie Valley.
“The major issue is transportation,” Forney said. “Awareness is another factor.”
During the school year, 42 percent of enrolled students in Haywood County Schools are eligible for free lunch and another 9 percent can receive reduce priced lunch. Allison Francis, Haywood County director of child nutrition, said she is sure some children fall through the cracks, and other organizations are stepping up to try to fill the gaps.
In addition to meal sites this year, MANNA Food Bank is supplying food to Haywood Christian Ministries, which in turn will distribute it every Friday to eligible kids through a program called Summer Sacks.
The kids will receive between four and a half and five pounds of food, which may include pasta meals like Hamburger Helper, dried beans, rice, fruits, vegetables and a smaller bag of kids’ snacks, Stahl said.
“With what the family is already receiving from the food bank, I would say it would last about a week,” Stahl said.
Summer Sacks is a spin-off of a similar effort in Haywood County during the school year. School counselors identify students in need of extra food on weekends, and teachers stuff it in the kids’ backpacks on Fridays to get them through until Monday, Stahl said.
The last week of school, these same students got notes put in their backpacks to let their parents know they can pick up extra food bags at the Haywood Christian Ministries this summer.
Nobody knows how many kids will come for the summer backpacks, however, Stahl said.
The Summer Sack program started with a food drive led by Bonnie Williams with the Waynesville office of Keller Williams Realty. The company does regular service projects, and Williams raised the question in a planning meeting for their spring project.
“I said, ‘Does anybody know where these kids get their food in the summer?’” Williams said. “Over the summer there would be two months where they wouldn’t get food. So we decided to take it on.”
The realtors gathered food at four locations in Waynesville and collected more than 1,500 pounds of food on a single day in May. There was so much food, they couldn’t fit it into their cars to take to MANNA. Instead MANNA had to send a truck, Williams said.
“We didn’t know how much food it would take so we worked our butts off,” Williams said.
Summer meal sites for school kids
• Tuckasegee Baptist Church
• River Park Trailer Park (Cullowhee)
• Jackson County Recreation Complex
• Canada Community
Lunch 12:30 – 1:30 p.m.
• Pigeon Community Center
Breakfast 8:30 – 9:30 a.m.
Lunch 12:30 – 1:30 p.m.
• Swain Middle School
Breakfast 7:30 – 8:30 a.m.
Lunch 11:15 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Wanting to help?
Ervin begins recruiting new sponsors in the fall and visits potential organizations. Organizations must apply and be approved before they can get reimbursement, and volunteers must go through training.
There’s no minimum requirement for how many days or weeks an eligible organization serves meals during the summer or how many kids get fed through the site, Ervin said.
“We want them to do whatever they are capable of doing,” Ervin said.