When summer comes, it means students who rely on school for what may be their only meal of the day have to look elsewhere.
It’s a growing problem, and this summer the two state agencies responsible for filling that seasonal nutrition gap will operate in nearly every county in Georgia.
Meals will be provided to more than a quarter-million children this summer just in metro Atlanta. The programs, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, work with schools, nonprofits, churches and other entities to distribute meals over summer vacation in areas with high participation in free and reduced-price school lunches.
The programs have proven vital for many Georgia families on the financial fringe, still struggling to emerge from a recession that drove the state’s poverty rate from 14.3 percent in 2007 to 19.1 percent in 2011.
“The recession really put a hurting on everyday expenses – gas and just getting to work and water bills and my mortgage,” said Theone Jackson of Riverdale, who takes her 8-year-old daughter and several neighborhood children to Flat Shoals Park, which participates in the Seamless Summer Option program run by the state Department of Education.
Jackson, who works in Fulton County’s school nutrition program and has gone seven years without a raise, said her daughter gets “an entree, fruit and vegetables.”
“It’s a win-win for parents who can’t afford to feed their children every day,” she said.
Wesley Tharpe, a policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said a lot of Georgians are like Jackson.
“Even though the economy has started to improve recently,” he said, “low- and middle-income Georgians are digging themselves out of a very deep hole, and safety-net programs help them get back on their feet.”
For example, Bright from the Start, the other state agency running a summer nutrition program, has seen inquiries for meals jump 60 percent since April.
“It tells us … the resource is needed because parents are calling us searching for these free meals,” said Falita Flowers, who has overseen Bright from the Start’s Summer Food Services Program for five years as the agency’s nutrition program manager.
The need exists throughout metro Atlanta. In Gwinnett County, 85,801 children are eligible for the meal programs, followed by 70,651 in DeKalb County, 51,494 in Cobb County, 42,475 in Fulton County and 34,299 in Clayton County.
The greater demand on services has caused the programs to grow. This year, 152 of Georgia’s 159 counties will be served by such programs, up from 135 last year.
At the local level, the programs are also expanding.
In Clayton County, school officials for the first time have expanded the Seamless Summer program – from two to 11 schools. Four Clayton recreation centers and six parks are also serving meals.
“When the economy went into the downward spiral, we started seeing more and more of a need,” said Audrey Hamilton, the nutrition services director for the Clayton school district. “We know there are kids who don’t have access to food on the weekends and during the summer.”
The programs are open to any child up to the age of 18, and special provisions are made for those older than 18 who have a physical or mental disability and are in school.
A typical breakfast consists of a variety of cold cereals, milk and canned or fresh fruit. For lunch, the children can have hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken fajita wraps, sliders and other sandwiches; fruit or vegetables; milk and juices; and low-fat chips or Cheetos. Legumes such as three-bean salad are served at least once a week. Breads are 100 percent whole-wheat.
Just like families with limited budgets, the summer meal programs face their own challenges. Many school districts are working with smaller budgets at a time when food prices are increasing. A few groups dropped out of the Bright from the Start program this year because they took a big hit in their budget or they don’t have the staff to distribute the food. In Gwinnett, the Seamless Summer program runs only during the district’s three-week summer school program.
“It takes a lot of manpower and costs associated to open the schools, prepare meals and distribute the meals,” said Karen Hallford, the dietitian for Gwinnett County Public Schools. “So the 15 days is really all we could do.”
Private groups have stepped in to help.
MUST Ministries is a volunteer-run organization that operates summer meal programs in Bartow, Cherokee, Cobb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Paulding and Pickens counties. It expects to serve 250,000 sack lunches while school is out.
This summer, it will partner with USDA programs in Bartow that end service July 17. MUST will step in at that point to provide daily meals until school starts again. The organization will also help out the YMCA in north Cobb, a state distribution site.
“It’s a tremendous operation where the whole community comes together to feed these hungry children,” said Kay Cagle, a spokeswoman for the organization.
Churches, community groups and local banks all come together to donate food, assemble the lunches, and distribute them, Cagle said. Recently, a high school cheerleading squad volunteered.
Cagle said she’s seen numbers of eligible children increase in each community MUST serves, and it’s not limited to poor, urban or rural communities.
Hamilton, the nutrition services director in Clayton, said that in her nearly 30 years of serving meals in school districts, she has never seen hunger at the level she sees it now.
“They’re pretty hungry,” she said. “They eat everything on their plate, including the items they don’t particularly care for.”
Where to go for help
Bright From the Start
If your family needs help with summer meals, call 1-855-550-7377 or using your cellphone, text “foodga” to 877877 or call the United Way at 211.
Seamless Summer Options
If you need information on where to find a participating Seamless Summer program, call the United Way at 211 or text “freefood” to 877877.
In Clayton, if your organization would like to help, contact Falita Flowers at Bright From the Start at 1-855-550-7377.