The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board last week expressed guarded interest in co-locating a health clinic and community kitchen at a renovated Lincoln Center campus on South Merritt Mill Road.
Lincoln Center is the current home of the school system administrative offices and Phoenix Academy, the district’s alternative high school program.
School officials are working on a plan to renovate the building to add space and create a centralized preschool program to serve the entire district. The design process for the renovation is underway, and construction is slated to begin in 2017, provided Orange County voters approve a bond package in November to fund facility upgrades.
Representatives from the Inter-Faith Council and Piedmont Health approached school administrators about constructing an additional building on the site to house a food pantry, community kitchen, medical facility and dental clinic.
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Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said he sees potential for collaboration.
“I saw opportunity for the families and students that we serve, specifically the Pre-K students and Phoenix students, who would have access to on-site health care and dental services,” LoFrese told the board. “Families in need could have access to the food pantry, and Phoenix students could receive on-site training in the healthcare industry.”
He acknowledged there could be challenges, including hammering out a lease agreement, managing parking and ensuring student safety.
Board member Rani Dasi said she’d support sharing space with Piedmont Health, but she balked at opening a community kitchen on school grounds.
“I think our number one responsibility is the safety and security for our students, so we really need to think about how this might work,” said Dasi. “We want to understand parent concerns about this and our ability to control who is coming to campus with those services being offered.”
Plans to relocate the IFC’s community kitchen from Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill to downtown Carrboro have met with opposition from business owners who worry the free daily meals will attract crowds of homeless people who may loiter before and after meal times.
“I think we also have to be aware of the community response to this,” said Dasi. “We know that in Carrboro, where adults are, people were opposed to it. Now we’re saying we’re saying we’re putting children in that space.”
Dasi asked her peers to consider the “optics” of siting the kitchen near a program designed to serve low-income families: “It feels like a lot of our parents who might end up at the Lincoln Center would be non-paying parents whose kids qualify for Headstart and those type of programs,” she said. “If this was a world-class preschool facility that served wealthy parents, would we put a food pantry next to it?”
Michael Reinke, executive director of the IFC, told the school board his organization is willing to consider new models of food distribution, including preparing food at the Lincoln Center site but handing it out at a number of locations around town.
The board took no formal action on the plan, but a majority of members indicated they’d like school administrators to return in the near future with a detailed report on how co-location and collaboration might work.
LoFrese said the board will need to make a decision by the spring to incorporate any additional buildings into the design plan, and to communicate to county commissioners how the district would spend proceeds from the proposed school improvement bond slated for a vote in November.