Feeding thousands of kids a day during the summer takes a lot of work. For many, it's crucial
LISTEN: Federally funded summer meal programs, like the one run by the Bibb County School District in Macon, step in to fill the gap during some of the hardest months for families that are food insecure. GPB's Sofi Gratas reports.
On a Thursday afternoon in late June, a week out from the end of the school district’s summer meal program, it’s lunch time for the kids at Macon’s Martin Luther King Elementary School.
Latanya Wooten is the nutrition manager at the school. She’s been helping feed kids enrolled in summer camp, and kids from the neighborhood, who are hungry.
That's because for some kids, the end of the school year also means losing access to daily meals. So federally funded summer meal programs, like the one run by the Bibb County School District in Macon, step in to fill the gap, feeding thousands of kids a day during some of the hardest months for many families.
“It's a program that's much needed,” Wooten said. “A lot of parents work in the morning time and in the afternoon. So by us feeding the kids, they don't have to worry about whether or not their child is eating, especially if they don't have any older siblings or something like that.”
Kids who line up in the cafeteria every day can expect meals like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or General Tso’s chicken, always with the option of fruit, chips and a beverage. On this day, lunch is hamburgers and baked beans.
“With us, we know that they will get either a lunch and or a breakfast,” Wooten said. Both meals are served hot.
Condus Shuman is the executive director of school nutrition for the district. She said having several access points to the program is essential to its efficiency. Kids up to 18 years old, or up to 21 years old with developmental disabilities, can be fed for free.
“It doesn't matter whether or not you're a Bibb County student,” Shuman said. “So if you're visiting grandma and grandpa for the summertime and they live in Bibb, you have access to these meals every day.”
If families can’t make it to a meal site, the mobile food program will bring meals to them.
In the parking lot of the school district’s central kitchen, mobile food site coordinator Keiza Hunt gets ready to send off school buses filled with lunch bags for kids.
“Each day we've been packing anywhere from 1,800 to 2,300 meals,” Hunt said.
That’s in addition to all the meals that get served at school cafeterias, she said.
Mobile meal sites include community centers and apartment complexes, like those in the four neighborhoods this particular school bus is traveling to. At each location, bus manager Sheena Hartry hands out plastic lunch bags. She hustles kids in and out of the bus. Some are so young they need help walking.
When the bus stops at a neighborhood in East Macon, Michelle Harris walks up with her five grandkids.
“I come every day, they love it,” Harris said. “They get a juice and maybe applesauce and stuff like that.”
But there’s only one week left of the mobile food program. Harris said after that, they’ll “pray.”
“We're gonna feed them, but it's hard with food being so high and they're home all day long,” Harris said.
Preparing for an imminent need
At the last bus stop, some kids take their lunch inside the Anthony Homes Community Center, where Shaviz Adams has been looking after them all summer.
“Each day they come in, I make sure they have games as well as some kind of activity, even if it is math, learning, reading, something like that,” Shavez said. The kids are getting ready to sign up for a kickball game.
Free activities, air conditioning and food mean some kids stay here through the evening. Shavez said he wishes the program would get extended to the start of school on Aug. 1.
“Because some kids do depend on it," Shavez said. "And I don't want to just go into detail on that, but I know kids do depend on it sometimes.”
Around the same time the school district’s summer meal program is mostly over, local nonprofits step up to help feed hungry kids while families wait another month for school meals to start again.
At the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank warehouse in Macon, pallets of shelf-stable food are stacked on top of one another to create rows. A giant refrigerator and freezer in the back stores more food.
“Definitely, families need more food,” said Bernard Simmons with Macedonia Baptist Church while loading food into the back of the church van. His is one of over 100 food pantries that rely on the food bank for supplies.
This summer in particular, grocery prices have been more expensive than people are used to. That means more people looking for free or affordable options to feed their families.
“Inflation's hitting all of us,” said Kathy McCollum, CEO of the food bank. “I mean, anybody who's going to the grocery store knows what's going on in terms of how hard it is to stretch that food dollar.”
Plus, food donations have dipped since the COVID-19 pandemic, McCollum said, when assistance reached record highs.
Looking forward, an end to the federal COVID-19 public health emergency means this is the last summer families with eligible kids will receive extra money through Pandemic-EBT, which helped feed an estimated 925,000 school children in Georgia this summer. Other temporary programs, such as increased SNAP benefits, are also being rolled back.