The summer break from school can be really tough for some children whose parents can’t always afford to buy food. Summer lunch programs across the country try to help feed those children- but lots of children still go without because they can’t get to the school to eat.
Renieca Harris is the head cook at AB Combs Elementary School in Hazard Kentucky. This year her local school district has sent its summer lunch program on the road. Every week day, Harris loads hundreds of meals into a bright van and delivers the food to low income children throughout Perry County.
It’s midday at the community park in Hazard,Kentucky. Kids are splashing in the pool. Others are waiting at the side of the parking lot. A truck comes down the road- it’s shaped like an ice cream truck, except colorful illustrations of fruits and vegetables decorate the sides. Within minutes, Renieca Harris is leaning out of the food truck with a glowing smile, handing out lunch to four children.
“We come over here and let them play and get some food. It helps. I watch three different kids every day, so any little bit helps,” said Christy Tolson, whose son David is getting lunch. Tolson says she’s recently started bringing him here every day for lunch, along with three of her nieces and nephews.
David is noticeably excited to find a red apple in his lunch sack today. The program tries to include fresh produce in each meal. Schools here would like to buy more local vegetables and fruit to serve the kids, but the season doesn’t really pick up for farmers here until the middle of the summer.
They’re hoping to purchase local watermelon and tomatoes to feed the children sometime in the next few weeks. Today, they’re serving a hotdog, and Chips, cookie, grapes, apple and orange.
Renieca Harris is the head cook at one of the local elementary schools in Hazard. Most of the kids recognize her from school, so they call her the lunch lady. “One kids says, ‘It’s the bite bite truck.’ When they see us coming he says it’s the bite bite truck. So that makes you feel good. They know when you come they’re gonna get something to eat, something good,” said Harris.
Harris worked most of her life in the sewing industry until the local factory she worked at here closed down a few years ago. She loves her job now working in the local schools, even though there is one thing that never gets easy for her: “When you work with the school system and you see the kids all year long, and you worry. You make sure that everybody’s being fed. And so I worry, even on weekends I worry.”
Summer lunch programs aren’t anything new- they’ve been around since the late 60s They’re funded by the USDA, but at most of them children go to a community center or a school to eat. But one of the main struggles for many Appalachian children is they live in more remote areas, usually without public transportation. So their parents have a more difficult time getting them to schools so they can have their free meal.
But in recent years, more and more summer school districts and community centers across the country have been doing mobile meal programs. This June, Jefferson County in West Virginia has begun delivering summer meals with school buses.
And this summer, Perry County schools in Kentucky were able to purchase a truck so they could deliver those meals in neighborhoods and parks to children who otherwise might not have enough to eat. The truck delivers meals to at least 160 children a day.
After the Hazard park, Harris’ next stop is a low income housing development called Cherokee Hills. Harris drives the truck across a misty four lane road, and along a hillside draped thick with kudzu. Actually, the food truck already made one stop at Cherokee Hills today, but Harris said they were flooded with 75 children, and ran out of lunches. So they went back to the school to restock.
Each weekday the Perry County Summer Feeding Van gives away at least 160 meals to children.
At the Cherokee Hills neighborhood, five kids run out of their apartments. Kayla Chandler’s two children wave excitedly at Harris’s van. “The kids loved it. I loved seeing the smile on their face when it pulls up. They wait for it every morning. They’ve got it down pat when it comes and they know. They watch for it,” said Chandler.
“There’s just so many little kids around here, a lot of them doesn’t get fed like they need to be fed, and if it wasn’t for the truck they’d go hungry.”
Maryann Pheldner lives in a nearby apartment and her grandson eats from the food truck every day. “They really enjoy it. They really do. The little young’ns really need that. It’s pitiful. You know I thank God for that woman, bringing that food, I really do.”
Pheldner is sitting in a living room decorated with dried flowers. Burgundy shades cast the room in a warm glow. Phelder has an oxygen tank to help her breathe. She’s raising her fifteen year old grandson, Jared, who sits across from us on the couch.
“Well we get low on the end of the month, you know? I guess everybody does," said Pheldner. "We’re on low income. And it helps a big lot here. It really does. And I really appreciate all they do for us. It really does warm my heart. People really do care for you, you know? But every day gets a little harder for us, don’t it.”
Pheldner says at first she wasn’t sure how she felt about letting her grandson take the free food. She says it was Harris’ warm personality that made her feel comfortable with the idea.
“But she makes us feel real welcome about it.”
Harris tells people like Pheldner there’s no shame in asking for help if it helps your child get the food they need.
“Everybody needs help. So don’t be ashamed, just come get it. Hey, I’m a parent. I raised kids. So I wish I knew this when mine were little,” said Harris.
Harris’ son Brandon is now an adult and works as a sub cook at the school. This summer, he’s working with his mother as she makes her deliveries to neighborhoods throughout Perry County.