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Locals Pick Up Providing Summer Lunches Where Federal Program Leaves Off

summer meals: Young couple sit outside at stone table with paper bags on it with two young children.

Photos by Stell Simonton

Zack Fowler (left) and Amber Mitchell sit with with their 2-year-old son and Mitchell’s 3-year-old niece at lunch at Eagle Point mobile home park near Covington, Ga. Four churches provided free summer lunches here in July and assisted with food delivery in June.

At the entrance to the weathered Eagle Point trailer park, a blue and red sign proclaims “free lunch.” Down a steep concrete driveway are 35 worn trailers, a playground and a modest office building. It’s one of the sites in Newton County, Ga., where summer lunches are served to children.

The providers are local and state organizations as committed to the process as the federal Summer Nutrition Programs. In fact, they work together.

While “big government” might be a bad word to many in this red state, there’s little overt criticism of the summer lunch programs.

At Eagle Point, resident manager Linda Pace sits behind a desk in the office.

[Related: Oklahoma Nonprofit Labors to Increase Kids Fed in Summer]

“Hey, darlin’, they haven’t gotten here yet,” she calls as the door bangs and a kid about 12 enters. He’s waiting for lunch to arrive. Two young women, one with a baby, keep her company in the office.

About 75 percent of the households in the park have children, Pace said.

“I live here and I know the situation of some of these children. They may not get lunch if it’s not provided,” she said. “They struggle from week to week. They live paycheck to paycheck.”

In Newton County, about an hour east of Atlanta, 69 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches during the school year.

In June, food for lunch at Eagle Point was provided through the Newton County School District, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Summer Nutrition Programs.

But in most of July, when summer school was over, food was provided each day by one of five nearby churches, coordinated by a Georgia nonprofit, Action Ministries. Susan Stone, a school nutrition coordinator with Newton County Schools, said that the schools and local organizations pool their resources to provide meal coverage in the summer.

summer meals: 5 men and women in orange T-shirts stand in line facing out holding paper bags.

Volunteers from Lovejoy United Methodist Church near Covington, Ga., prepared and delivered lunches each Wednesday in July.

The need

“More than half of the kids at the summer lunch sites in Newton County don’t have an adult at home in the summer,” said Santia Moore, hunger relief coordinator at the Piedmont branch of Action Ministries. Other kids may have a mother, father or grandparent at home, but money is very tight, she said.

Action Ministries Piedmont, which serves nine counties, draws on about 70 community partners, including churches, civic groups, local businesses and individuals. In Newton County this summer, the organization coordinated lunch for 300 children a week.

“We are providing assistance so that parents can possibly use those funds [for food] elsewhere in their budgets,” said Tamara Richardson, regional development coordinator at Action Ministries Piedmont.

Parents may be employed but with low pay and only part-time hours in local businesses like fast-food restaurants, she said. At one site, she met a grandmother who was taking care of seven children, one still in a stroller.

“[The program] takes a huge burden off some of these families,” Richardson said.

The Newton County site with the greatest poverty was an extended-stay motel where 40 kids were served each week, she said.

In the Jamestown community, volunteers pull up into one mother’s driveway to bring the food,

and at Cedar Grove, churches provide homemade lunches all summer, she said.

summer meals: People stand next to table full of paper bags standing up.

Eagle Point manager Linda (in white T-shirt) helps hand out bag lunches.

Lovejoy pitches in

At Eagle Point, members of the small Lovejoy United Methodist Church delivered lunches from school each Wednesday in June but made lunch each Wednesday in July. On a recent Wednesday, Jerry Day, Al Martin, Jeff Parker, Debra Brown and Brown’s 16-year-old granddaughter Gemma Campbell came with food.

Church members generally make and pack sandwiches.

“We gather at the church. We set up a line and we can do it all at once,” said church member Martin.

In this Bible Belt area, many people who volunteer to provide summer lunches for kids do so through churches. Many know that — but for luck — they might be the ones in need.

Martin grew up bouncing from relative to relative and lived in an orphanage for a while.

“It does my heart good to know these kids are getting lunch,” he said.

He and his wife also prepare meals for a local homeless shelter, serving Christmas dinner one year.

Parker is a church member who has worked construction in the past, but is mostly doing yard work now. He doesn’t have a car.

“Ain’t had a car in a year, so I couldn’t get a regular job,” he said. “I would want somebody to do it for me if I needed it,” he said about the lunch program.

As for people who don’t see the need: “They’ve probably never been in a position to need help.” he said.

At Eagle Point, summer lunch has a friendly communal flavor. Children and adults sit at picnic tables under a shade tree.

Among them were Zack Fowler, 20, and Amber Mitchell, 19, with their 2-year-old son and Mitchell’s 3-year-old niece. Mitchell grew up in the trailer park and now works at McDonald’s. Fowler works at Domino’s Pizza.

“Some families have trouble with food,” Mitchell said. “It really helps out.”

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