The Rev. Leroy Woodside has been feeding people most of his adult life.
Before becoming a pastor he was a director of social services in New York City, and he also ran a men’s shelter in Atlanta feeding 600 men a day.
So when Wake County Public Schools visited his church in Garner in May and asked if his facility could be one of the hosts of the Summer Meals Program, the answer was easily “yes.”
Growing up as one of seven kids in a working-class household, Woodside recalled, he used to be one of those children who went hungry during summer break.
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He can remember sometimes having to skip a meal so the family could save money or not getting a meal at all because the food ran out. Sometimes his mom had to set the food on the floor because they didn’t have a table. They sat “Indian style” on the ground to eat.
“I believe that the people who need the most help a lot of the times are the working-class families that people can’t see,” Woodside said. “They can see the kid that’s walking the street not eating, but there’s a lot of kids in the house with parents working and they are telling them, ‘We’re going to have to skip lunch today.’”
The Summer Meals Program, a nationwide program that helps feed children during the summer months, is trying to combat that. Children can go to 132 different sites around Wake County and get a free breakfast and/or lunch.
One of those site’s is Woodside’s iWorship Church off Mechanical Boulevard in Garner.
For many low-income families, parents rely on school lunches to help feed their children during the school year. When school is out, there are times when the child may not get that meal.
In Wake County, 52,480 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. That is 34 percent of all Wake County students. Yet, last year the Summer Meals Program served only 6,100 students, or 11 percent of those on free or reduced lunch.
The Department of Public Instruction took over the program this past year from Health and Human Services, after successfully advocating for the program to the General Assembly.
“We felt we could do better with it because we knew schools have the infrastructure already in place,” said Lynn Harvey, director of child nutrition services at DPI.
Whether there has been an increase in participation this year is too early to tell, but officials at DPI say they have increased sites across the county, putting a focus on two ZIP codes; 27610, which covers Southeast Raleigh, and 27601, which encompasses part of the Warehouse District in downtown Raleigh, from Monie Lane to South Park.
“We chose those two because based on our data those were the two most needy areas, and two of the most underserved areas from the year prior,” said Cynthia Ervin, who heads the Summer Meals Program in the state. “There’s still not enough, but we’re still moving in the right direction.”
The county held a kickoff celebration Thursday afternoon to launch the new initiative at Gethsemane Church on Sanderford Road. County Commissioner Chairman James West said programs like this must happen.
“I think it is a proactive, long-term type thing we have to do if we are going to give our young people a chance to reach their full potential,” West said. “Health and wellness is so very important. These children will in turn become great citizens in the county. Commissioner (Matt) Calabria has put a lot of work into this.”
Lack of participation
At Woodside’s church, he is authorized to serve 175 kids. The church has enough food and space to serve that many.
However, they serve only about five children.
Woodside attributes the lack of participation in the program to the stigma attached to it. He said not many adults want to be labeled as “poor” or hungry because they didn’t have enough money for food.
Woodside said when he and his siblings were kids, they weren’t allowed to tell other people they were hungry because of the embarrassment it would cause his parents.
“Every now and then one of my brothers, Bernard, couldn’t take it. He would say, ‘I’m hungry!’” Woodside recalled. “And the people would be like, ‘What?! Feed that boy.’ Now Bernard knew he was going to get a whoopin’ when he got home, but he didn’t care because he got some food to eat. Now our family was a wonderful family, but that’s what went on.”
And he sees it in the children he serves. Children are mute about their hunger because of their parent’s pride, he said.
Thursday, Woodside held a meeting with a few of his staff and church members to talk about nutrition and ways they could further help the community in Garner and Raleigh.
Woodside’s sister, Antoniette Woodside, said the kids they serve at their site come from Garner and Southeast Raleigh. She said thinking back to her childhood, she can relate to the children.
“The kids that have passed through here, wanted the food,” she said. “They need it everyday. When they came, they were consuming the food quite fast, so you can tell that that was a child who was hungry.
“If they are not given an alternative, they are more than likely at home upset,” she added. “They’re angry. They don’t understand.”
How to get a summer meal
Children ages 1 to 18 can find the closest location by texting “FOODNC” TO 877-877, call 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or visit www.FNS.USDA.gov/SummerFoodRocks.
Meals are free. The program lasts through August, while school is out. Parents don’t need to apply to the program to get a free summer meal for their kids, and no ID is required. They can just bring their child to a summer meals site in their community.
For Spanish: Call 1-877-8-HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273), or visit www.fns.usda.gov/es/pagina-buscadora-de-sitios