Imagine Tommy. Reclining into his familiar position on the small stoop outside his grandmother’s unit, he surveys the apartment parking lot for signs of life from his friends. Still wiping the sleep from his own eyes, Tommy suspects they too have settled into the slower-paced, late morning rhythms of summertime. The overcast sky provides little reprieve from the oppressive July heat and humidity, which seem to rise up from the asphalt and concrete and dirt, but Tommy has grown accustomed to the brutal climate and pays it no attention.
Tommy’s fingers trace along the superhero figures that adorn his favorite pajama pants as he imagines vividly the adventure Captain America and his friends must be engaged in currently. “Or do superheroes also get a summer vacation?” Tommy wonders to himself. Before he can answer his own question, a door across the way swings open and two younger girls dart out to the sidewalk, jolting him back to reality. He glances swiftly back toward the entrance of the apartment complex and sees the small yellow Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) school bus for which he’s been patiently waiting emerge from around the corner.
The little school bus settles into a shady spot next to a grassy common area and the back door opens to reveal the familiar faces of CAP’s Family Life Child and Family Development Center (CFDC) staff and volunteers. The previously dormant apartment corridor almost immediately begins to bustle with life, as children of all ages pop out of units from all corners and make their way to the bus. Some of the CAP staff pull mats and blankets out of the back of the bus and carefully arrange them on the shaded patch of lawn.
A single-file line naturally forms and quickly lengthens down the parking lot. Tommy takes his place toward the end of the line, relinquishing to the more excitable younger children their desired spots in the front. Besides, he knows the CAP bus always has enough for everyone and he’s only just begun to notice the grumbling in his stomach.
CAP is here today as part of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), an initiative of the Kentucky Department of Education established to ensure that children in low-income families continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. For more than two decades, CAP has been a sponsoring organization for the program, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service to make certain that children do not go hungry. If you can imagine a child like Tommy, there are many more like him in Eastern Kentucky – 22 percent of children in the state are considered food insecure. Without the almost 2.5 million meals served annually through the SFSP and sponsors like CAP, these children would not be guaranteed their next meal.
“It depends on the child and the family, but I know some of these children aren’t being fed well,” reflects Sharon Goff, manager of the Family Life CFDC. “I have to wonder what some of these children do for food on the days we don’t bring them meals.”
This is the second year for CAP’s mobile site delivery in Rockcastle County, which distributes the nutritious lunches to eligible apartment complexes and trailer parks. Three days every week, the small yellow school bus arrives at lunchtime in these locations to distribute the food to any children 18 years old and younger who are participating in the program. The food-prep and delivery crew consists of the CFDC employees and volunteers, who devote a significant amount of time and care to the preparation of the meals.
Jennifer Didelot, a teacher at the CFDC, explains, “With all of us working together and all hands on deck, it takes about an hour to prepare all the lunches. But you also have to factor in another hour and a half to do all the shopping. By this time, we’re pretty organized about it. We all have a job to do and we just jump in and get it done. It doesn’t take long at all.”
Like all of the summer feeding program’s sponsors, CAP provides meals that meet the rigorous guidelines and standards of the USDA, so each lunch is a well-balanced, nutritious source of sustenance for the children. “The lunch is usually a sandwich, a vegetable, and a fruit, plus a milk. And CAP’s food pantry sometimes has some extra treats on-hand, like pudding or cookies, so we’re sometimes able to include some bonus items. The guidelines for portions differ slightly by age group, so we always take that into account,” clarifies Didelot.
In addition to the mobile-delivery sites, CAP sponsors a number of other summer feeding sites – including both CAP camps and the Eagle CFDC in McCreary County – 10 sites total. Many, if not a majority, of the children and their families are connected to CAP in various other ways throughout the year. A substantial number of them are either enrolled in one of the CFDCs or graduates of those centers. By delivering the meals directly to the homes and neighborhoods of children, the summer feeding crew at Family Life has discovered benefits from the work they do year-round with children in the community.
“It’s interesting,” reflects Samantha Harris, a long-term volunteer at the CFDC. “It’s helped me to understand where the kids come from. Even riding on the bus during the school year and seeing their homes from the window, coming out here this summer and realizing that some of them don’t have meals every day gives me such a different perspective on their specific situations. I’m hoping it will help me understand the children in the fall semester even better.”
At each stop, weather permitting, the crew hops out, sets up a picnic area, and spends quality time with the children – often engaging them in planned activities once they’ve finished their meals. Some children bring their parents or grandparents, who generally gravitate toward the outer edges of the action and engage in conversation with some of the feeding crew. Over the course of the summer, relationships have been built and deepened – not only with the children, but with their families and neighbors. When the CAP bus arrives, it tends to elicit impromptu block parties.
For all the children with similar stories to Tommy, CAP is giving the gift of a normal summer break. These children don’t have to think about being hungry, which allows them to just enjoy being children. For Tommy, the real superheroes are the compassionate donors, volunteers, and partners who facilitate and support this program – and luckily they don’t take summers off.