Preparation for the day begins at 6 a.m.
“It’s just a wonderful program ... and these kids can’t help it. They can’t help their parents’ circumstance,” Cartersville Nutrition Director Tracey Morris said.
Under new federal guidelines, school lunches during the regular year have undergone massive changes in terms of the number of alloted calories and requirements for more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Some of these requirements have been passed along to the Summer Feeding Program as well.
“It’s been very hard because we used to give out chips and cookies every day, but now we’re incorporating beans and vegetables every day and that has been very labor intensive,” Cartersville Primary School Nutrition Manager Dieni Montgomery said the morning of Tuesday, July 2, while overseeing the preparation site held in the CPS cafeteria. “It’s harder to get the storage volume with coolers [on the buses and vans].”
She added, “[The kids] are so excited and the kids that don’t get the things at home like fresh strawberries, grapes — we can give them things during the summer that they don’t normally get.”
Students are able to choose two meals, such as lunch and a snack or breakfast and lunch. They are required to eat a portion of the meal, for example, on a school bus. They are then allowed to take the remainder of their meal home for later.
The menu on Tuesday included steak sandwiches, peanut better and jelly with a cheese stick, fruit vegetables, pork and beans as well as milk and orange juice.
“My program director has done an awesome job getting us out there in the community,” Montgomery said. “[Children in need] are right there at our back door and poverty is everywhere. You don’t have to look far to find it.”
Montgomery said while students on free or reduced lunch are notified of the program, volunteers have been integral to finding the numerous locations throughout the community where children are in need.
“We get a lot of feedback from our volunteers and have a couple of meetings before the program starts so we know where these kids are and who’s going to be out there at these sites and that helps a lot,” Montgomery said. “We have really great people that volunteer that go out and know where these pockets are.”
The number of students who arrive at the site locations vary, but The Daily Tribune News observed sites where half to an entire school bus was filled with children.
“We have one site that has over 260 kids,” Montgomery said.
Morris said the federally-funded program allows the school to hire about 40 employees, with those returning getting first priority.
The program has met criticism, however, due to its lack of an income requirement and open-door policy to feeding any children on the bus and van routes as well as stationary sites. However, those working with the program are quick to refute such criticism.
“I’ve been out on these sites and I’ve seen these children we are feeding, a lot of them I see all year,” Montgomery said. “They’re just really in need and if they need [food], they’re getting it.”
She added, “I think [critics] just haven’t been out in this community to see where these kids live and how these kids live. ... For a lot of these kids, the only meals they get is school breakfast and lunch.”
While riding along on one of the bus routes, DTN observed a boy about 10 years old carrying his 1-year-old sister onto the bus for lunch. The local preparation site has been able to develop what are called “baby bags” with easily-digestible foods like apple sauce and cereal and milk for when babies are in need of a meal.
Cartersville Board of Education President Linda Benton explained CPS teachers will be riding to see the locations before the school year begins in August in order to have a better idea of the home lives of their students.
“I knew about the food [preparation], I knew the meals, I knew the numbers, but I don’t see [the program] as a food bus, I see it as a love bus,” Benton said. “When those children get on the bus, those bus drivers know their name, the people [working] on the bus know their name, they greet them and they make them feel important and they’re glad to see them. That just thrills me to death.”
Behind the wheel
DTN rode with driver Cheryl Ende, who has been driving a bus for nearly 19 years and participating in the Summer Feeding Program for three years. She said she has seen the program grow exponentially over the years.
“The first year was kind of hit or miss. The first time we stopped at the Quality Inn there was no one,” Ende said. “We got out and knocked on doors and put out fliers and they started doing fliers in the children’s bookbags and this year [students] are out there waiting for us. They know what it’s about and they’re ready.”
However, because it is summertime, Ende has to honk her horn at the earlier stops because she said some of the children are sleeping in or helping get younger siblings prepared for the approaching meals.
For Katie Pruitt, a 2012 graduate of Cartersville High School and a student at Georgia College & State University, working to distribute meals on one of the bus routes is a summer job like no other.
“I love kids and I believe every kid should have the chance to know people believe in them and that people care about them,” Pruitt said. “... The relationships I’ve developed with these kids on the bus — I’ll never forget them.”
She said while she knew there was poverty and need in Bartow County, she didn’t fully recognize the scope of the issue.
“When you pull up to one street, it puts it in perspective when you notice the close quarters these kids are in and that every child is coming out, not just one or two,” Pruitt said.
Margaret Shaw operates a day care center at Alexander Chapel United Methodist Church which also serves as a Summer Feeding Program site. The entire operation is conducted by volunteers.
“We give them a snack and we pick up the breakfast and lunch from [CPS],” Shaw explained. “Some kids who are less fortunate or their parents can’t get them to the other sites, they’ll call and I’ll tell them a time where I can take the van and go to them so they can eat something.”
Her site serves between 70 and 80 children each day, ages 3 to 15.
Food for thought
Those working with the program said while it was heartbreaking to see the need of children in the community, it was uplifting to be able to make a difference in a child’s life through something as simple as a meal and a positive attitude.
For the children who eat through the program, visiting a feeding site is just an everyday activity.
O.J., who is approaching the eighth grade, is a participant in the Summer Feeding Program. He said he enjoys getting to eat a school lunch every day and is enjoying his summer vacation.
“We go outside and some of me and the other kids play tag,” O.J. said. “It’s fun and I like seeing [my friends from school] during the summer and getting to talk to them.”