Second Harvest has received a $20,000 grant from ConAgra Food Foundation's Hunger-Free Summer endeavor to support its Summer Food for Kids program, and the money could not have come at a better time, says executive director Elaine Streno.
Demand for food for hungry kids in the 18-county region served by Second Harvest has increased at the same pace as for the overall East Tennessee population, rising almost 50 percent in the past three years. But the mere fact of summertime makes it far harder for families and Second Harvest to cope. "School's out!" doesn't have the same joyous ring for hungry children as it does for kids in functioning households, because most of their meals may come from school programs.
In addition to federally subsidized meals, by the end of the 2010-11 school year, 189 schools participated in a backpack program to send kids home with kid-friendly, super easy-prep foods each Friday to hold them over until school started again on Monday, says Streno. Her organization purchases such foods as peanut butter crackers and Easy Mac (which needs only warm tap water to form macaroni and cheese), and the schools stuff them into the backpacks. In addition, over 2,550 children received nutritious after-school snacks and hot meals through 38 Kids Café/Healthy Snack program sites such as the Emerald Youth Foundation and Boys & Girls Clubs.
"That number, 2,550, is so daunting—so many children living in challenging situations—and it's not something people like to concentrate on," says Streno. "What we hear about the children we serve through Second Harvest is that most are receiving just three to five meals a week at home. Every situation is different. Many are from working poor families, where rent, utilities or gas come before groceries. Some are just in dysfunctional situations where drugs are the top priority, others are children being raised by grandparents whose funding doesn't extend to the food budget."
Second Harvest has been able to reach more and more kids through its Summer Food for Kids program, now in its third year. The program was able to serve almost twice as many in summer 2010, providing 949 kids with nutritious snacks after summer school programs, and meals to take home over the weekends. And this summer, the ConAgra grant and private donations will enable the program to serve 1,278 children at nearly twice as many sites—38 schools or community sites across 10 counties. Part of that is take-home food, part hot meals served at Boys & Girls club and Emerald Youth Foundation sessions, some of them prepared through a loose partnership with Knox Area Rescue Ministries.
Even with the expanded efforts, though, the summer program reaches 1,272 fewer kids than the school-year efforts, and some counties can't be served at all once school's out, says Streno. "Our biggest challenge in summer is that there aren't many children's centers like an Emerald Youth Foundation in our rural counties," she says. "There's a fabulous Boys & Girls Club in Scott County, but in other rural locations there just isn't a central loading place for snacks or to send food home. There are children missing out, and it's very heartbreaking."
While Second Harvest had an outpouring of support from the community and corporate sponsors and is already back to being fully functional after rains flooded its warehouse Feb. 28, Streno says they're looking forward to September, when they'll open a $4.4 million warehouse in Alcoa, just past the airport. By early 2012, they hope to have raised an additional $1.5 to $2 million to install a mega cooler-freezer that will expand their capacity to collect and distribute donations. "Our board decided on this approach because we'd been turning down 50 to 100 tractor trailer loads of food per year because we didn't have the room to keep it refrigerated or frozen," says Streno. "It will be good to have that in place!"
But there's something else the group is looking forward to first, says Streno. "We're always ready for school to start, we look forward to that, so at least we'll be able to reach the hungry children."