Recently, I was able to briefly escape the mountain of paperwork sitting atop my desk to visit a Food for Kids Summer Feeding site. Martin Luther King Elementary is one out of 30 sites located in the metro serving meals to children ages 0 to 18. Children get the opportunity to eat healthy, balanced meals during the summer months when schools aren’t in session and when programs like the Food for Kids Backpack Program are on break.
Martin Luther King Elementary is the main site where all meals are packed and distributed by our drivers. The process is orchestrated by Brenda, the maestro of operations. She oversees everything from the hub of operations, the cafeteria kitchen. When I entered the kitchen I was greeted with the humming of everyone working diligently, packing meals and planning everything for the next day.
Growing up and attending school I always wondered what happened behind the scenes, beyond the trays filled with grilled cheese sandwiches and mounds of fruit filled wobbly Jell-O. I never dared to venture beyond that border, so heavily guarded by lunch ladies donning hairnets ready to swat unruly students with spatulas. So stepping into the kitchen and catching a glimpse of what actually goes on was rather exciting.
Lunch ladies get a bad rep of being outwardly disdainful of children serving them “mystery meats” scavenged from old gym mats. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration but pop culture has never been too kind to them. When was the last time you saw a lunch lady portrayed without a mole? Meeting Brenda anyone would relinquish this silly notion.
When I met her she was all smiles and happy to answer whatever questions we had. During the tour I was able to see the cavernous freezer which stored meals ready to be shipped out. There was staff in the back chatting while making veggie wraps for students. Work starts at the crack of dawn preparing the kitchen for the day’s work, making the meals and packing meals in containers that are picked up by one of our drivers. There are 4 drivers running 4 routes delivering meals to all summer feeding sites and so far in June alone 59,300 meals have been served. It’s an astronomical number considering the amount of work that’s put into making the meals and finding enough people to help out. At the Martin Luther King site 90 students are fed per week. Along with 4 new drivers lending a helping hand with the program 16 people also came on board to work in the kitchen preparing healthy meals for the kids. It’s a wonder for anyone to take on such a daunting task but luckily everyone seemed to meet the challenge with great gusto, especially Brenda.
When asked why she wanted to participate in the program she said, “It’s a good feeling, when you look at the statistics. If I can help that one child, it’s so fulfilling.” Brenda went on to mention the story of a father who brought both of his kids to the site and was glad there was a place where children can go to eat a healthy meal. They are part of a large number of families whose children need assistance during the summer months. Last year, according to a 2010 survey about the Summer Feeding Program, about 90 percent of parents said they needed Summer Feeding for their children. It’s a tough time during the long, often punishing, summer months when families have to choose between paying the rising costs of utility bills and providing a meal for their children.
When we left the school I turned back for one last glance at the cafeteria. Brenda went back to helping the staff and I could see her beaming as she packed sack lunches amidst the chatter of students escaping the heat for a meal. It’s been a tough challenge expanding the program and providing meals to so many children but Brenda and everyone who works with her prove that it is possible.