This is one of several Solutions Journalism stories published through a Grady capstone course that reported on housing issues during the fall of 2018.

About one in four children in the state of Georgia live in food insecure households, according to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Laura DeGroot, the program administrator for the Northeast region of Action Ministries, said they see this problem in Athens, Ga., where some children do not know where their next meal is coming from.

In 2017, 21 schools in Athens-Clarke County qualified with students eligible for free or reduced-priced meals at school. Of those 21 schools, at least 91 percent of the student bodies received a free lunch.

While the in-school programs provide meals for children during the school year, the children still experience food insecurity during breaks, such as winter, spring and summer break. 

 Why It’s Newsworthy: Action Ministries created a program called Smart Lunch, Smart Kid to help combat the problem of childhood hunger during the school breaks. As winter break approaches for the Clarke County schools, the program will serve about 100 kids during the weeks away from school.  

Smart Lunch, Smart Kid began as a program in the Atlanta area and expanded to Athens in 2013. The program has continued to grow since, and they now serve about 100 children during the winter break and spring break, and from 300-400 children during the summer break, DeGroot said. 

The program operates in two ways. For the winter and spring break deliveries, the kids register to be a part of the program, and the food is delivered one time to their homes for the week. During summer break, DeGroot said they go to eight sites every day during the week, and the kids come to a central location to receive lunch. 

“One neighborhood that we serve is Arbor Ridge Apartments, but they have a little pavilion area,” she said. “So if there is any community areas, we try to go there. Then kids come to us and then we can give them lunch.”

Smart Lunch, Smart Kid serves eight areas in Athens on the east side, north side and west side. The sites include Clarke Gardens Apartments, Athens Gardens Apartments, Hallmark Mobile Homes, Sleepy Hollow Mobile Homes, Pinewood Apartments, Arbor Ridge Apartments, Tallasee Club Villas and Kathwood Apartments. 

Working Through Struggles

And while the program is making a difference in the community, DeGroot sees the struggles they face as an organization.

“It’s getting enough people, getting enough food and just making sure that we can mobilize communities,” she said.

Financing the food is one of the constant struggles. DeGroot said they work with the Clarke County School system to use their food program called Seamless Summer for six to eight weeks where they provide the food for Smart Lunch, Smart Kid. During those weeks, they will pick up the food from the schools and deliver it to the sites for lunch. 

“They have amazing lunches; they get like pizza and all this kind of stuff the kids are pumped about,” she said.

But the weeks they do not receive food from Seamless Summer, they completely rely on their partners, or they buy the food themselves.

A second factor is the number of volunteers. They drive to all the sites to either drop off the food deliveries or to serve lunch that day, and having enough people to cover all the sites is sometimes a problem. 

DeGroot said they want enough people at all the sites to not only serve lunch, but to also play with the kids and build connections with them. 

Hopes of Expansion

DeGroot said they are working through the struggles, and through expansion, they hope to combat some of their main concerns.

One immediate way DeGroot wants to expand the program is in the upcoming spring break delivery. 

“So for spring break, I think what I am going to do is have it like how we do it in the summer where we go to the eight sites that we serve and we just bring lunch that day,” DeGroot said.

And then we might play with the kids, do some games and that kind of thing, too. We’ll have groups that provide the lunch and then go deliver the lunch Monday through Friday.” 

This expansion would allow for more kids to receive lunch and give them a chance to connect with the volunteers and other children that participate. 

DeGroot said they would also like to enhance their educational enrichment. During the summer, she said they pair an educational component with serving lunch to help combat learning loss. They bring books to pass out and to read with the kids to help fill the gap. Action Ministries also piloted a program in the summer of 2018 to teach kids about financial literacy through a book that kids could understand.

The program focused on financial literacy is an area DeGroot said she especially would like to see expand to other Smart Lunch, Smart Kids programs around the state. It can also grow in Athens through an increase in volunteers to help with running the program.

Action Ministries is looking to expand the Smart Lunch, Smart Kid program into Barrow County. In order for it to occur, DeGroot said they need church partners who are willing to take some of the ownership of the program, or either allow for their church to be a site or adopt a site to help Action Ministries run it. They are in the process of looking for those church or business partners, she said, who would be willing to help. 

Lastly, DeGroot would like to see the program expand in the number of volunteers. There are a number of volunteer opportunities available for people to get involved, and in turn allow Smart Lunch, Smart Kid to expand.

“One of my biggest things is just trying to get bodies out there so they can interact with the kids and build relationships with the kids and just be there consistently over the summer, because it’s really easy to come out one day, which is great because we want you to,” DeGroot said. “But to come out more consistently and to build relationships with the kids, that’s one thing that I am personally passionate about.”

Kelsey Russo is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.



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