Wake County

Summer food program provides meals to kids in need

For children who receive free and reduced price lunches during the school year, having enough food becomes more challenging during summer break.

In the Casa de Luna apartment complex in northeast Raleigh, those kids can come every Tuesday and receive a free, nutritious lunch — part of a coordinated effort across Wake County to feed tens of thousands of kids at risk of going hungry this summer.

Wake County’s summer food program, which started Monday, is working with local organizations in the hopes of distributing more than 300,000 meals to low-income children in the county this summer.

There are over 150 meal distribution sites across the county, said Regina Petteway, director of the Human Services department.

“These sites will provide a nutritious meal, they will provide free activities, and also education about building healthy habits that will last a lifetime,” she said.

The Casa de Luna site, which is run by the faith-based organization the Dream Center, fed 26 kids Tuesday. The children are preschool-to-middle school aged; almost all are Latino. They filled the small room with bilingual chatter as volunteers and a few parents helped distribute chocolate milk, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apple sauce.

In Wake County, close to 20 percent of children live in food-insecure households, according to 2013 data compiled by the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government. Over 56,000 Wake County students are eligible for free and reduced price school lunches — but less than 10 percent of those students receive free summer meals.

Summer food programs have existed in Wake County for years, but the Human Services department began coordinating the effort in 2014, in order to take full advantage of federal funding to support and expand the program.

Last year, the department and its partners served 296,543 meals. The initiative continues to grow this year by bringing in new organizations like the Dream Center, Petteway said.

The summer food program hopes to target the most vulnerable families by putting sites in low-income neighborhoods. Many of the sites, including Casa de Luna, are “open,” meaning that any child can get a meal without having to show identification or proof of income.

Mercedes Sanders directs summer food program efforts for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina in 34 counties, including Wake. One of the largest program sponsors, the food bank provides the lunches that are sent to Casa de Luna with the Dream Center.

Sanders said children of low-income families are at the highest risk of hunger during the summer.

“Families’ budgets are stretched throughout the summer with the kids being out of school,” she said. “There may be extra childcare costs, extra energy costs, and the parents still have to go to work.”

On top of other costs, low-income families pay an average of $300 more per month on groceries when kids are out of school, according to No Kid Hungry.

And much of the food those kids may eat during the summer is less healthy than the food they receive during the school year, said Lauren McCallum, a senior health educator for the Poe Center for Health Education.

McCallum said the meals kids receive at food distribution sites — such as the Poe Center’s Wednesday lunch location — are healthy and come with fun, educational programming about making healthy choices.

“It’s nice that we're able to provide the food as well as the education, and a lot of the education is focused on physical activity and good nutrition,” she said.

At Casa de Luna, Dream Center founder Jeremy Porras and the site’s twelve volunteers take turns reading to the kids.

Providing food and books can help build meaningful relationships and have a transformational impact on the children, Porras said.

“We’re getting the educational piece and the nutrition piece, and so it really hits two birds with one stone,” he said. “It’s a great program, and we’ve seen it change the lives of kids.”

Sam Killenberg - (919) 829-4582

The Wake County summer food program runs throughout the summer, ending on August 25. For more information, or to locate the nearest summer food locations, visit: http://www.wakegov.com/HumanServices/FreeSummerMeals/Pages/default.aspx

You can also call 1-866-3HUNGRY or text “FOODNC” to 877-877 to receive a list of nearby summer food locations.