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Volunteers, partnerships work to feed children in Hall County this summer

POSTED: June 22, 2017 3:10 p.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Fair Street School students eat lunch Thursday morning inside the school cafeteria as the Summer Food Service Program begins its season of feeding free breakfast and lunch five days a week to children ages 2-18. The Summer Food Service Program is sponsored by the University of North Georgia, which has 19 sites in four counties, including Hall. Officials expect to serve 40,000-45,000 meals this summer.

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Growing up in the Chestatee community, Alisha Chavez was one of many students who benefited from the reduced-fare lunch program at school, but she didn’t know about programs that offered free meals to students in the summer.

Now a human services major at the University of North Georgia, Chavez volunteers in a program that hopes to provide more than 40,000 free meals for children at 19 sites this summer in Hall and three other counties.

“(Hunger) has always been a problem that I’ve seen, but I’m glad that there’s actually a program to help with this and that I get to be a part of it,” Chavez said. “It’s actually a little fun, too, because I get to see where my skills are and I get to work directly with the kids.”

Chavez, who said summers were “a little bit harder” without those reduced-fare meals, is part of a group of UNG summer interns working with the Summer Food Service Program, which is funded mostly by state and federal funds and is a collaboration of a variety of groups and volunteers and led by UNG.

Pamela Elfenbein, a professor at UNG who serves as the sponsor for the program, said she expects the total number of meals served in all 19 sites to reach 18,000 by the end of June and projected that the total number for the summer would reach the goal of 40,000-45,000 meals served. Last year, the UNG-led program served about 28,000 meals.

A celebration of the success of the partnerships in summer food programs in Hall County was held Thursday at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier. The club is next to Fair Street School, which feeds about 300 children from ages 2-18 each weekday, including students in programs at the school and at the club. Thursday’s meal included a chicken sandwich, pinto beans, french fries, plums, carrots and milk.

Chavez and other UNG summer volunteers  were among the many partners who were at the celebration, including Elfenbein and UNG President Bonita Jacobs.

Jacobs called the summer feeding program  “mutually beneficial” for the university and the children who receive meals.

“The kind of experiences that it gives to our students to be able to add to their resume experience, but also to add to their critical skills, makes them incredibly competitive in the job market,” Jacobs said. “We believe they can have a huge impact in the state of Georgia as they become professionals working in these different areas.”

Jon West, vice president of programs for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said about 11,000 Hall County children are unsure where their next meal is coming from at some point.

“When you’re talking about hunger in Hall County, you’re talking about childhood hunger,” he said. “It’s a serious issue. It’s an issue that has an answer. Part of the answer is happening here where communities that care are utilizing resources from state and federal partners to build their capacity to respond at a scale that actually makes a difference in kids’ lives.”

Jennifer Glover, of Glo-Crest Dairy Farm, was one of the many speakers who agreed that childhood hunger is a serious problem, especially in the summer.

“I know that hunger doesn’t take a vacation in the summer,” she said. “I know in this area we have a lot of children who are at or below the poverty line.”

Robin Bailey, Southeastern regional office regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told the story of a child whose grades dropped every year around March. Bailey said the child was trying to get his grades low enough to qualify for summer school.

“He wanted to be in summer school where he didn’t have to worry about meals,” Bailey said. “That’s the kind of thing we can’t afford to have, and that’s why having partners like you working to make sure we don’t experience that. It is very, very important. Unfortunately, when school is out, many families struggle to put food on the table.”

Steven Mickens, chief executive officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier, said he is optimistic Hall County will continue to work together to fight childhood hunger.

“I know the community gets it,” he said. “This is a problem that is going to be solved. It is going to be solved with everyone collaborating and working together.”

Chavez said she is finding “self-fulfillment” by working with the children this summer.

“It’s really satisfying,” she said. “I like feeding children and seeing them happy and just chatting with them as they go by.”

Heather Morris, another UNG human services major, called the work with the summer feeding program “one of the most beneficial things I’ve done.”

“I have a 6-year-old, and I can’t imagine what life would be like if he was wondering where his next meal was coming from,” she said. “It feels good to give back to the community and to give to kids.”



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