CCS’ Summer Feeding program doles out nutritious meals for free

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/26/19

SILER CITY — It’s a little before 11 a.m., and it’s hot. Just like the meals at the back of the bus.

But a group of Chatham County Schools child nutrition staff members isn’t stopped by …

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CCS’ Summer Feeding program doles out nutritious meals for free

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Clarifications: The names of Jennifer Patton Ozkurt and Brittany Martinez have been corrected for improper spellings. Also, according to Chatham County Schools, "the program has been in operation for many years, with mobile meals incorporated in 2017. While the program for summer meals has been profitable, the district's overall program for school nutrition is not.  Any profit from the summer program goes into the district's School Nutrition Program to help meet its annual budget."

SILER CITY — It’s a little before 11 a.m., and it’s hot. Just like the meals at the back of the bus.

But a group of Chatham County Schools child nutrition staff members isn’t stopped by the heat. They’re diving into it.

For four weeks over the summer, four days a week, two-and-a-half hours a day, these ladies drive around in a retired school bus and deliver free lunches to any children under 18 in need at four designated drop-off spots around Siler City.

It’s just one part of the county’s Summer Feeding program.

Outlining the need

The school district says 48 percent of county students receive free or reduced price meals, breakfast and lunch, during the school year. Children who are members of households whose income is at or below a certain level, depending on household size, qualify during the year according to federal guidelines. Additionally, students whose households are eligible to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits or Cash Assistance (CA) are automatically qualified for free meals, as are homeless or migrant children, foster children and participants in individual schools’ Head Start programs.

In Siler City, where the bus delivers, the need for free and reduced meals is higher than the county average. Students at Virginia Cross Elementary (91.3 percent), Chatham Middle School (87.38 percent), Siler City Elementary (86.32 percent) and Jordan-Matthews High School (74.15 percent) qualify at a much higher rate than their county counterparts.

Wherever the need is, the district’s School Nutrition Services leaders believe it’s their responsibility to meet the need.

“When we close our doors at the end of the school year, we can’t guarantee that the children who were depending on Chatham County Schools to provide meals are actually getting meals during the summer,” said Jennifer Patton Ozkurt, the director of school nutrition services for CCS. “It’s just our way to continue to provide nutritious meals to children, at least one-third of their calories for the day. We still want these students to be healthy and strong when they come back to us during the school year.”

Riding the bus

So here’s where the bus comes into it.

They started July 8 and will finish August 8 and deliver food every Monday through Thursday. The bus, driven on this day by cafeteria worker Brittany Martinez, takes off from Virginia Cross and heads to the first stop.

The bus arrives and Martinez honks the horn to let the children know lunch is here. She stops the bus at a central location. The kids line up, either behind the bus or inside the bus, to get a put-together meal.

Today, the dish is popcorn chicken nuggets, steamed broccoli with cheese and an orange. Recipients get to choose between regular and chocolate milk. Then they eat.

Renee Langley, who works as school nutrition office support, said staff tries to choose regular student favorites, like corndog nuggets, baked chicken, a ham and cheese sandwich and pizza, which is served every Monday.

“It’s hard for kids in the summer to want to get out of bed and get out in the heat for a meal,” said Langley, “so we try to give them something that they enjoy throughout the year.”

But the food bus program is not a drop-off and go. Staff members take the time to sit with the kids and chat. Lisa Loflin, the cafeteria manager at Virginia Cross, has developed a rapport with some of the children, remembering things she talked about with them earlier in the summer and joking around. She said she loves it.

“During the school year, you don’t really have time to interact with the kids,” she said. “By doing this, you get more one-on-one time with them. It gives you a better understanding of what kids deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

On this particular trip, Ozkurt, who is brand new to the position, spent time asking children what they liked and didn’t like about school lunches. She proposed new items and got feedback. That’s not abnormal — this program is just as much about outreach as it is about food.

Sometimes that outreach is just food, and sometimes it’s just a smile. Martinez said her favorite part is bringing a smile to the faces of the kids by honking the bus’ horn or saying hello. At the final stop, children were waiting at the normal spot for the bus to arrive, and others came sprinting to be fed.

Ozkurt, who’s also a registered dietician, said it’s the child nutrition department’s role to help students be healthy in their diets as much as possible, whether school is in session or not.

“When you go to the doctor, the doctor first tells you that the best way to make yourself healthy is to look at your diet,” she said. “So we know that food is a very integral part of our health. A hungry child cannot learn. Whether it’s in the school year or during the summer, we want to ensure that we are providing everything for that child so that they can develop and be the best, particularly when they come back to us in the school year.”

A crucial investment

Keeping kids fed during school is a top priority for the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction. The department said as much in a recent press release announcing eligibility requirements for free and reduced lunches. The household income standards actually increased for this upcoming school year, which would feasibly allow more children to qualify for the program.

“Access to healthful meals at school can enhance students’ overall health and academic performance,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said in the release. “Children who are hungry or poorly nourished have difficulty learning and do not perform as well in the classroom as students who are well-nourished. Meals and snacks at school are healthier and more appealing than ever before.”

It’s an investment for Chatham County Schools as well. The district also serves summertime meals at various camps and schools-run programs, and also feeds groups at the Boys & Girls Clubs, among others. Last year, the district doled out 9,213 breakfasts and 12,538 lunches during the summer at a cost of $61,223.28, with the full cost (and more) reimbursed by the federal government.

Staff members note that this summer meal program is not federally required. They don’t have to be doing this. But they do because they want to. And it’s not easy.

“People think summer is a breeze, but summer can be as difficult as the school year because we have so many programs that we have to operate,” Langley said. “We have federal guidelines that we have to follow — health grades, sanitation. We are fortunate to have a great staff that follows the rule and does what they’re supposed to do.”

Loflin and Ozkurt both said they hope to expand the program in following summers to more sites. Thursday’s bus route served 65 kids, which is an average day. But that’s just 65 compared to the hundreds in the Siler City area — and the nearly 4,400 countywide — that receive free and reduced breakfast and lunch during the school year.

Staff would love to be able to add more seats and air conditioning to the bus and make it like a mini-cafeteria. But while they wait for resources, they keep on going.

“Serving the children of Chatham County, that’s our job,” Loflin said. “It’s a passion. You really have to enjoy what you do to do it. I wish every one of them would come. There’s a need. I’m thankful to be able to be a part of the process. I enjoy it.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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