The first time Melissa Jones honked her horn as she drove into the crowded Whitfield County housing developments with a truckload of food, she was greeted by a line of children, eager for lunch.
The cafeteria manager at New Hope Middle School quickly brushed away her tears so the kids wouldn’t see how moved she was by their need.
That was five years ago, and she hasn’t taken a summer vacation since.
“These children can’t get a job and go make money to buy food if their parents have too many bills or haven’t made enough money,” she said. “The importance of the program is the children.”
The program she’s talking about is Seamless Summer, a series of federal grants given over the summer to public school districts that serve neighborhoods in which more than 50 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches during the school year.
The summer feeding program began the day after school got out and finishes the day before school starts again in August. Whitfield County Schools is reimbursed $2.71 per meal served by the federal government, an amount that must cover the cost of the food and supplies and the labor to distribute it.
Some of the 52 lunch sites are at schools, but others are at local churches and civic organizations. Some are operated out of the backs of pickup trucks, traveling around to high-poverty neighborhoods. The rules are simply that no child 18 or under can be denied food.
Annette Coe, cafeteria manager at North Whitfield Middle School, has been in charge of the district’s summer meals program since it started seven years ago. She has a passion for making sure all the system’s students are fed.
In addition to feeding hungry children, she said, the program puts money back into the local economy by employing food workers and purchasing food from local vendors.
“If this program went away, it would just devastate the economy here even more,” she said. “When it comes to, ‘Do I feed my child or do I pay my rent?’ How do you choose? ... If you’ve got five kids, seven days a week, and you’re trying to feed them in this economy, it’s tough.”
Every day, Sylvia Luna brings her three grandchildren to the sidewalk in front of her home in Underwood Apartments to wait for the food truck. On Tuesday, she braved the intense sun and temperatures in the upper 90s to hold grandson Frankie Palomie’s hand as they waited for a turkey and cheese sandwich, a nectarine, carrots and broccoli, Sun Chips and a carton of milk.
“It’s a very good thing, because they give him healthy food,” she said, looking down at the 2-year-old. “It’s a very good thing that they do this.”
José Hernandez, a rising senior at Morris Innovative High School, also lives at Underwood Apartments and has been taking advantage of the daily free lunches for several years.
“I used to just bring my sisters, but now I get food, too,” the 17-year-old said. “It’s nice that they’re willing to take time out of their day to bring food to those who don’t have much food.”
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...