Summertime relief: Free meal programs feed hungry WNC children even when school’s out

IN THE BAG: Healthy options like carrots, potatoes, bananas and apples will be among the many edibles provided to students through local programs this summer. Photo courtesy of Feeding America

Hunger is an issue facing a large number of children throughout Western North Carolina. “In general it’s one in four, which is much higher than the national average,” says Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications at MANNA FoodBank. Throughout the school year, free and reduced-price food programs provide children with breakfast and lunch options. But come June, many of these same children go without.

To combat this, many schools and organizations offer free summertime meals. Last summer, the Buncombe County Schools Summer Food Service Program served 72,309 free meals to children ages 2-18. Asheville City Schools provided 4,613 free meals through a similar program. And MANNA FoodBank made nearly 900 food deliveries to children each week during its 10-week Summer Pack Program.

Even with these numbers, none of the organizations are content. “We really are trying to get some different things passed, as far as making sure that we can reach more children in the future,” says Sheryl Harris, the Summer Food Service Program administrator for Buncombe County Schools. “We know that there’s more of a need out there, and we want to reach as many children as possible.”

Part of the struggle for all three organizations is awareness. According to a November 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, 55.86 percent of Buncombe County students were considered economically disadvantaged. Of this percentage, only 12 percent received free summer meals this past year. “There’s a huge awareness issue among parents and a huge awareness issue among organizations,” says Tamara Baker, the program manager and communications director of No Kid Hungry North Carolina.

To better promote these programs, No Kid Hungry created a texting program in 2012. While the option has been available for several years, Baker notes it has “taken a while for people to understand the opportunity.” The system itself is simple. Students or parents text “FoodNC” to 877-877 and receive the location of the closest summer site in their area. The service is available in both English and Spanish.

DELIVERING THE GOODS: Beth Stahl (left) and Kara Irani (right) of MANNA Foodbank, gears up for their Summer Pack Program.
DELIVERING THE GOODS: Beth Stahl (left) and Kara Irani (right) of MANNA Foodbank, gear up for their Summer Pack Program. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank

Open sites for the Buncombe County Schools program will be located primarily at public pools and open June 13 to Aug. 19. “You don’t have to go to the pool to get the free lunch,” Harris says. Nor do students need to provide any identification to receive a meal. The only stipulation for these sites is that meals must be consumed on premises due to USDA regulations.

Closed-site locations, which typically include church and school camps, are not open to the public.

Both hot and cold items will be served at all BCS open sites. “One exciting addition to this summer [menu] is a walking taco salad kit,” says Harris. Each meal will also come with a cup of fresh fruit or vegetables. “And, of course, milk,” Harris adds.

Asheville City Schools will kick off its fifth annual Summer Food Service Program on June 13 as well. “We get better at it every year,” says Beth Palien, the school nutrition director. While smaller in scale than the BCS program, ACS offers three open sites, which are at the following community centers: Hillcrest, Lee Walker and Pisgah View.

“We do things like cheese burgers, Chick-fil-A sandwiches, turkey cheese wraps [and] fish sandwiches,” says Palien. Children are also provided with produce, including baby carrots, celery sticks, fresh fruits and raisins. Meals are free to all children, ages 2-18, but food and drink must be consumed at the site where it’s provided.

Meanwhile, MANNA FoodBank’s Summer Pack Program will offer weekly food deliveries to children outside Buncombe County. “We include fresh produce every week,” says Beth Stahl, the youth programs manager at MANNA. “Last year we did eight counties.”

Unlike BCS or ACS — both of which are federally funded through the USDA — MANNA’s summer program is grant- and donation-based. “That’s one of the challenges on our side,” says Irani. “Funding is everything for what we do. A dollar in is three meals out the door.”

MANNA hopes to add a ninth county (Avery) this year, if funding permits. At present, it plans to serve the following counties, which Stahl selects based on existing partnerships and need: Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson. Macon, Madison, Mitchell and Transylvania.

“We work with the working poor,” says Irani. “These aren’t people sitting around at home doing nothing. They are working two jobs to barely make ends meet, if that.”

Lack of transportation is a major obstacle in all eight counties served. Because of this, many of MANNA’s working partners deliver the meals directly to the homes of hungry children. Whether it’s church volunteers making weekly deliveries in Jackson and Clay counties or the Brevard Rotary Club doing its part in Transylvania County, the effort to end hunger is a shared responsibility by all parties involved.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” Stahl says, in discussing MANNA’s future summer program plans, “to work [ourselves] out of a job one day?”

For details about food delivery locations or donating to MANNA’s Summer Pack Program, visit mannafoodbank.org. Those in the eight counties served by MANNA are also encouraged to visit their local school websites to learn additional information about times and locations of food deliveries.

Both the BCS and ACS programs will run June 13-Aug. 19. Both programs will be open Monday through Friday, except July 4. For additional information on sites and food delivery times, text “Food NC” to 877-877 or visit buncombe.k12.nc.us or ashevillecityschools.

For additional information on how to support No Kid Hungry, visit: nokidhungry.org

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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