School might be out for summer, but every day at about 6 a.m. dozens of school nutrition employees pour into school kitchens throughout Middle Georgia.
They’re preparing meals for thousands of hungry students as part of the USDA’s Seamless Summer Program.
Both Bibb and Houston counties participate in the program, which provides free meals to any child in the community age one to 18.
“The goal of the program is to ensure that students in the community still have a place that they can come in and obtain nutritious meals during the summer,” said Timikel Sharpe, executive director of school nutrition at Bibb County schools.
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Children go to a meal site and receive a meal as long as they meet the age requirement. Bibb has 64 meal sites, and there are 73 in Houston. Parents can go to www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks to find the location nearest them and that site's serving times.
Both counties offer mobile routes that bring meals to children in neighborhoods that are far from schools and whose families do not have access to transportation.
Bibb serves about 4,000 breakfasts and about 5,000 lunches a day in the summer. Houston passes out about 310,000 meals during the months of June and July.
“We're always concerned that with the national hunger issues like they are around the United States, that during the summer when school children are out of school that they're not going to have an opportunity to have full meals,” Sharpe said.
The Bibb school system is part of a federal program that allows every student to get breakfast and lunch at no charge during the school year and summer. That’s because 99 percent of Bibb students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Houston county has 16 schools in the program.
“Sixty percent of our kids receive free or reduced meals,” said Meredith Potter, director of school nutrition in Houston County. “It is important that we provide opportunities for them to have access to meals in the summer.”
While not all Houston schools are in a district that receives free meals, any child, regardless of their school zone can receive a free summer meal.
The meals follow USDA nutrition guidelines. Breakfast includes a grain, fruit and milk. Lunch includes a grain, fruit, vegetable, meat and milk.
“We serve popular items that kids love. For breakfast we might have a chicken biscuit with milk and fresh fruit. Fresh veggies for lunch with a corn dog or cheeseburger,” Potter said.
Preparing such a large quantity of meals each day is no small operation. It takes 69 employees to run the program in Bibb and 45 in Houston.
Nickole Smith has worked for Bibb County for 15 years. The program helps not only the children she serves but also Smith.
“I do it for my babies. To help feed the children,” Smith said. “But it also provides me and others with income during the summer. This is a lot more pulling and straining on the muscles than my other job, but it’s worth it.”
The Bibb County summer food program runs until July 13 while Houston County’s program runs until July 27. The first day of school in both districts is Aug. 1.