Most kids who rely on free or reduced-price lunch during the school year lose that steady source of food when the summer begins.
To help compensate for lost meals, counties across the state participate in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program. Schools, parks and other USDA-designated meal sites provide free breakfast and lunch to students in need.
This year, however, Bibb County made a major addition to the program to reach more families: they’ve put hot food on the menu for the first time.
Timikel Sharpe, executive director of Bibb County School Nutrition, said students in the past asked for fresh-cooked meals instead of the usual cereal and or peanut butter sandwiches.
“So this year, we’re trying to do a traditional-type breakfast,” Sharpe said. “We have a hot breakfast on Mondays, like grits and eggs and sausage and biscuits, and the same thing on Friday. And then on Wednesday, we’re doing pancakes and that kind of thing.”
For lunch on Tuesday and Thursdays, Sharpe said they’re serving hamburgers and hot dogs. Kids can look forward to warm sandwiches and healthy sides for the rest of the week.
On a Wednesday afternoon in June, for example, about thirty kids under 18 passed through the lunch line at Bruce Elementary School for turkey-and-cheese on croissants, buttered corn, fresh apples, grape juice and milk.
Bibb County is not required to provide summer meals, cold or hot. But Lester Miller, president of the Bibb County Board of Education and a Macon mayoral candidate, said ensuring access to healthy meals is part of helping students learn.
“There’s been plenty of statistics that show that students who don’t get the proper meal or do not get the proper nutrition that they need at home, they don’t succeed very well in school,” Miller said. “They may repeat a grade. They may have low self-esteem. Or they may have other issues that’s related directly to food.”
Research from Feeding America indicates that kids who experience hunger, even temporarily, are more likely to be inattentive or disruptive once school starts back.
Family grocery costs can increase by more than $300 per month when school-aged children come home for the summer, according to No Kid Hungry. This means that many families -- more than two-thirds -- have to choose between buying food or paying for utilities, healthcare or other costs.
When healthy food isn’t consistently available, children are more likely to forget what they learned in school the year before. They may also suffer long-term health problems, such as vitamin deficiencies, anemia, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
For those in the mid-state area, these issues hit close to home. The Middle Georgia Community Food Bank reports that almost 100,000 children face food insecurity each summer, and about a quarter of them live in Macon alone.
Bibb County’s summer meals program currently serves about 10,000 kids a day, according to Sharpe -- less than half of those in need.
She said she hopes the hot food will help close that gap.
“We are trying to move around the trend of what we serve to try and entice children to get up and come and have a really great breakfast, and then come back for lunch,” Sharpe said.
The update required some changes within the program itself. For starters, Sharpe said they needed more staff to help prepare the meals.
“We have a benefit of having a central kitchen, so when we even do our hamburgers and hotdogs, we have a kitchen that can start to put those things together and send them to the schools, and then they cook them at the school,” she said. “So whereas in some other schools, they may have to make it all from there, we have a warehouse and everything.”
The program offers more than meals: kids also get a chance to play with friends in the gym. Volunteers provide games and activities for the children when they’ve finished their meals.
Macon mom Samantha Taylor brings her two boys to the Bruce Elementary location.
“I love it for the kids,” Taylor said. “My kids love coming here. They wake up in the morning and want to come, so I think it’s amazing what they do for our kids.”