Writer / Janelle Morrison
Trisha Straus, an early intervention advocate for Fisher’s Youth Assistance Program, and Maggie Figge, an early advocate for Carmel’s Youth Assistance Program, were concerned about the children in their school districts who are on the free or reduced lunch programs during the school year and won’t have access to nutritious meals throughout the summer break.
One in seven students at HSE participate in the free or reduced lunch program, but when school ends each year, those families are often left with the task of providing those meals while struggling to pay utilities and other expenses.
Straus and Figge reached out to the county’s service, faith-based and child advocacy groups for assistance and for resources to roll out the pilot food program this summer. The two have partnered with several individuals such as Anita Hagen, director at the Hamilton County Harvest Food Bank; Janet Gafkjen, director at Partnership for a Healthy Hamilton County (PHHC); Jayne Slaton, director at Merciful H.E.L.P. Center; and over 20 other incredible agencies and organizations that are participating in this program. This year, between the two school districts, more than 500 of the neediest children were invited to participate.
“Food insecurity for children here in Carmel is not something that we want to think about, but it is a fact of life,” Figge stated. “There are over 1,000 children in Carmel Clay Schools that depend on free breakfast and lunch five days a week at school. Many also receive weekend food assistance during the school year; however, these children may be going hungry when they are out of school for the summer. The Carmel community is coming together to address this problem through the first-ever Carmel Summer Lunch Program. The program provides a sack of nutritious ingredients to make each child five healthy breakfasts and lunches each of the 11 weeks of summer break. Carmel Summer Lunch is a community effort. It is community funded, and we need the help of our community.”
In looking at the Fishers and HSE School districts, the numbers are just as overwhelming as they are in Carmel, hence the need for this countywide program. Most of the communities do not qualify for federally assisted programs that provide lunches during the summer break weeks, but the number of children who qualify for free and reduced lunches is in the thousands. These families are at a level where they are unable to financially provide lunches year-round.
“We’re talking about over 5,000 kids who are not going to have the benefit of having lunch throughout the summer,” Gafkjen said. “For me, the partnership is also about improving nutrition and lowering the obesity rates while increasing physical activity. Nutritious food is a critical component, and if the kids don’t have the food, then they don’t have the energy to engage in physical activity. From that perspective, we looked for ways to get additional people and organizations together, and now we have community gardens involved that will help with providing fruits and vegetables. The lunches will not be packed with only nonperishable foods but with produce that is coming from our community gardens and farmers’ markets. We will also be incentivizing the children and including activities that they can do at home that will encourage them to be active and healthy.”
The idea of the summer lunch program was conceived by Straus and Figge and was brought to fruition by Hagen, who helped the duo strategize a plan that would bring on a litany of additional partners as word of the project spread throughout the network of agencies.
“Maggie and I sat down and started looking at the numbers of families that we had in the Carmel and Fishers/HSE School Districts that were on the free and reduced lunch programs,” Straus said. “We asked ourselves why we didn’t have anything in our communities that specifically addressed the summer lunch issues and what we could do about it.
“Maggie and I spent last summer touring all of Hamilton County and looking at the variety of programs that were going on from Noblesville to Sheridan. We knew that we would not be able to prepare the food ourselves simply due to the numbers involved. We connected with Anita, and she helped us bring the idea of a summer lunch program to fruition. She was the one who suggested that we start utilizing what programs and efforts were already going on in the communities, and so we began there. After meeting with township trustees, faith-based organizations, food pantries and other advocacy groups, we began planning and framing it all together.”
With the collaboration of all the interested parties, the launch of the pilot summer lunch program kicked off May 30 and is currently providing lunches to the registered children in the Carmel and Fishers/HSE communities.
“We have prepared a menu for each day, and we will send home everything that they will need for the meals on that menu,” Figge explained. “We are also sending home two boxes of cereal and granola bars for the kids, so that we are covering something for breakfast as well. An example of what is on the menu would be cans of mandarin oranges, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bag of carrots or whatever vegetable we have received from the food pantries that was collected.
There are several farmers’ markets who donate to food pantries, so the vegetable selection is dependent upon what is collected. We are focusing on making sure that everything that we put into the food boxes is appropriate for the ages of the children in the families. We understand that the eldest child who is staying home in care of the younger siblings needs to be able to open and safely prepare the food that we are sending home with them.”
The Merciful H.E.L.P. Center in Carmel is not only assisting with its food pantry’s resources but will be distributing the food to the pick-up sites where the families will go to pick up their boxes using their existing fleet of vehicles and volunteers. The center is also accepting additional volunteers to help facilitate the summer lunch program and is encouraging people to contact its office for more information.
“Summer poses a problem for families on free and reduced breakfast and lunch,” Slaton said. “If you have three children, you have to provide 60 more meals a month for your kids that they are used to eating at school. Children ages 0-5 need nutritious food for the development of their brain. They can be cognitively impaired. Hungry children have difficulty emotionally and socially as well because when your tummy rumbles for food, your sugar is low, and you need to satisfy your body. If healthy food is present, they will eat it. That is our goal.”
To adequately sustain the summer lunch program without depleting the resources of the pantries that serve all food insecure members of their communities, the organizers are humbly asking members of their communities for assistance by hosting food drives and by volunteering at each of the respective food pantries that are assisting with the program.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
There are several ways to help!
• Host a food drive: If you live or work in the Carmel community, please consider hosting a food drive specifically for the “Carmel Summer Lunch” program. If you live or work in the Fishers/HSE communities, please consider hosting a food drive specifically for the “Fishers/HSE Summer Lunch” program. You can contact Doug Mehlan at firstname.lastname@example.org, and he will provide you with details.
• Make a donation towards the purchase of food: Checks should be made payable to Hamilton County Harvest Food Bank, P.O. Box 881, Noblesville, IN 46061, and clearly marked “Carmel Summer Lunch” or “Fishers/HSE Summer Lunch.” You can also give online at hchfoodbank.org/online-giving under your community’s designated fund.
The cost for each lunch will be just under $2.00, making the total for the summer program $37,000. Because this is a community-wide effort run by volunteers, no overhead is budgeted, and all funds will go towards the purchase of food. No gift is too small.
• Volunteer your time: The Hamilton County Harvest Food Bank and the Merciful H.E.L.P. Center will need help bagging, transporting and distributing the food throughout the course of the program.
For more information on how to volunteer or to donate to the Merciful H.E.L.P. Center in Carmel, visit mercifulhelpcenter.org