By Norm Cannada
June 4, 2017
Students of all ages look forward to the summer as a time to get away from the daily grind of homework, school projects and hours in the classroom.
But this also means they are away from a free or cheap breakfast and lunch. Providing meals three times a day for children can be difficult for families on limited budgets.
In Gainesville City Schools, 76 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. Hall County Schools report that 57.2 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price meals.
“Across the board children make up the highest numbers of food-insecure people in our community,” said Kay Blackstock, executive director of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank.
Children are considered food-insecure if they don’t have reliable access to enough affordable and nutritious food.
“The blessing is during the school year the children are obviously able to get meals at school,” Blackstock said. “But when school is out, that’s an extra strain. ... We have a lot of grandparents raising grandchildren, so they definitely live on a very tight budget.”
Summer Food Service Program
The food bank is working with the Summer Food Service Program sponsored by the University of North Georgia, which has 19 sites in four counties, including 10 in Hall County. Officials expect to serve 40,000-45,000 meals this summer.
The food bank is also increasing the number of its mobile food pantries that deliver fresh produce to families in need.
“When I first got involved in the food network, the summer feeding piece was the part that stood out the most to me,” said Blackstock, who is in her ninth year at the food bank. “If there are two or three children in a home, it’s really a challenge for parents. Since 2009, the first year we tried to address the issue locally, I’ve seen communities rally together.”
Pamela Elfenbein, a professor at UNG who serves as the sponsor for the program, said she has seen the community support grow with the donation of a free air-conditioned bus, free or cheap vans, food donations, volunteers and buildings offered as sites for the program.
The program, which receives funds through Georgia Bright from the Start and the United Way of Hall County, provides breakfast and lunch five days a week for children ages 2-18.
Elfenbein said breakfast includes cereal, breakfast bars and Poptarts. For lunch, the kids get items like cheese, beef sticks, chips and dips on Mondays and Fridays. On the other days, Forsyth County Schools provides fresh meals, usually including meat, cheese and bread or wraps. All lunches also include at least two vegetables or fruits and chocolate milk.
“We make sure children at the poverty line or slightly above have access to nutritional meals,” she said. “You can get a hamburger for a dollar or two at McDonald’s, but that hamburger may have 500 calories or more. Our meals are 500, 600, 700 calories and include a protein, a whole grain and vegetables or fruit.”
For a listing of the Hall County sites sponsored by UNG in the program, go to http://www.decal.ga.gov/Nutrition/Search.aspx.
Even though Hall County has a strong economy, Elfenbein said poverty is still an issue.
“You would think that in a county that has so much wealth, food deserts and poverty would be almost non-existent,” she said. “If I didn’t have a car or gas I would have to go to the corner market to buy my food. There’s no access to nutritional food at the corner store. Food stamps do not fully cover what a family needs to fully eat and support growing kids.”
Both the Gainesville and Hall schools have a program called Seamless Summer that provides meals at some schools beginning Monday, except for Lyman Hall Elementary, which began its program last week.
Cheryl Jones, nutrition director for Hall County Schools, said the district will provide breakfast and lunch at 23 schools in June and eight sites in July. Last year, about 1,100 students were enrolled in the program and just under 20,000 meals were served. Most of the kids who eat the meals are involved in summer school, camps or other programs at the school, but other kids can walk in and eat for free. Adults can pay $3.50 for lunch and $2.50 for breakfast if they want to eat. Meals are served five days a week. Hall County sites, dates and daily menus are available at http://foodservices.hallco.org/web/summer-meals.
“We have pockets of food insecurity here in our county, and when we have the Seamless Summer option available — students who are actually in our building or who want to come in with their parents or they’re within walking distance to one of our locations — they can come in and have lunch,” Jones said. “It helps meet that need for our boys and girls that are in this county.”
Gainesville City Schools have feeding sites at Fair Street International Academy and Gainesville Middle School and expect to serve about 1,000 students, according to Penny Fowler, director of the school nutrition program for the district. The city program is only open in June and serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Thursday. Kids who are not involved in programs at the schools can also come for free meals and adults can eat lunch for $2.50 and breakfast for $1.75.
“We’re just real excited,” Fowler said. “It’s a wonderful program for the students and for the school nutrition employees as well. It gives them a little extra income.”
For more information about the Seamless Summer in Gainesville City Schools, including dates and times, go to: http://www.gcssk12.net/school-nutrition.html.