Through the program, children are provided lunch as well as enrichment opportunities such as free books from Book Harvest, "Fun Buckets" with activities, pop-in visitors from the police and fire departments, nutrition and recreation experts and more.
Food for Students is housed in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) Child Nutrition department. According to Christine Cotton, a director of Food for Students and founder of PORCH, a grassroots hunger relief organization based in Chapel Hill, the program has provided over 300,000 meals since it launched in mid-March and serves approximately 1,400 students every day.
When it was announced that schools would be closed for the rest of the school year, Cotton said she was asked by the superintendent of CHCCS to coordinate Food for Students.
Cotton worked with a team of CHCCS employees and the school district’s Meals and Nutrition Department, Transportation Department and Volunteers & Partners Office to get the program running. Cotton said representatives from three local congregations also offered to volunteer at sites to hand out food.
Cotton said 20 sites across the district were initially picked to distribute meals, which consisted of breakfast, lunch and a snack. Over 13 weeks, the program has grown to 37 sites throughout Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Liz Cartano, director of Child Nutrition at CHCCS, said the difference between this year and typical years is the number of students able to receive meals from the program.
“The USDA has a waiver that allows us to feed anyone between zero and 18, not just students who have free or reduced lunch.” Cartano said. “We don’t have to have qualified spots, so there are substantially more sites.”
In previous years, Cotton said students had to eat their meals on site, but with waivers from the USDA put in place during the pandemic, more children can be fed because someone in the family can ask for meals for as many children or siblings as they need and bring them home.
Tamara Baker, project and communications director of No Kid Hungry NC, said 60 percent of children in North Carolina were eligible for free or reduced meals even before the pandemic. In Chapel Hill, almost a third of students are part of the at-risk population.
“When COVID-19 hit, there was really a national effort where many rules were lifted so that there could be a greater number of meals available,” Baker said. “Chapel Hill has become a model for nutritional programs across the state because the mayor has been so involved."
Cotton said Food for Students serves meals four days a week, but on Thursdays, students receive food that can cover Friday's, Saturday's and Sunday’s meals. Cotton said a few times a month, the program also sends out produce boxes and milk to supplement the food supply.
Cotton said school social workers help identify sites where there are gaps in service so that the program knows where to cover. She said it was a “very big deal” for the state to say school buses could be used to transport the food.
“It makes such a big difference because students can recognize the yellow buses and see their bus driver,” Cotton said. “It’s comforting and safe for students, and as parents start to go back to work, it’s much easier for their kid to come out to the bus and come back home.”
Cotton said community members who are interested in supporting the program can donate to the Public School Foundation, a local nonprofit that supports local schools and the philanthropic arm of the program.
“Since we have access to kids and they feel safe, whatever we can do for them we want to do,” Cotton said.
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