Youth in Chattanooga who receive free and reduced lunches during the school year will now be able to access free meals this summer at sites throughout the city.
"What this is about is making the healthy choice the easy choice," said John Bilderback, program manager for the Chattanooga Health Department's Step One program. "Anyone 18 and under can walk in and get a free meal. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation nationally started a movement: $5 million to reduce childhood obesity by 2015."
Local community service organizations, businesses and the city are partnering to form a Summer Food Program Coalition to help area children in lower-income families receive healthy, free lunches.
Organizations like Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church and the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation were already serving meals to children last year. However, according to a study completed by intern Tegan Medico in the summer of 2010, only a small fraction of the students who qualify for free and reduced lunches were participating.
"We were only seeing 6 percent of the 27,000-plus kids who could take advantage of this for free," said Bilderback, who hopes to increase the number of students to 40 percent.
With new organizations pitching in and the new grant, more than 20 sites are now operating for the 44 days of summer, reaching more students than ever. Seven locations were added this summer: East Ridge Community Center, New City Fellowship in Cleveland, New City Fellowship in Eastlake, Cromwell Public Housing, Northside Neighborhood House and North River YMCA. The sites see about 37 children a day and are in areas connected to schools that have more than 50 percent of the student body eligible for free and reduced lunches.
The youth who attend the free lunch can also take advantage of sports and games sponsored by the sites. Part of the grant was also used to create awareness in the area through postcards, billboards and other media. By adding new locations, publicizing the program and creating a stable connection between participating organizations, the coalition hopes to stabilize the Summer Feeding Program, so that the number of students they serve can continue rising.
"It's done exactly what we hoped it would do - we've been getting hundreds of calls a day," said Bill Rush, director of the North River Family YMCA and Aquatic Center, who has his staff answering questions and directing residents to sites nearest them. "It's all about trying to bring enough people to the table where we all have to contribute a little to serve a lot. It's the perfect example of a private-public partnership."
The 2011 Summer Food Service Program was initiated by the Department of Human Services in Tennessee as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To make the program successful several organizations decided to band together, including the Chattanooga Hamilton County Health Department's Step One, Fellowship Missionary Baptist, United Way and Chattanooga Parks and Recreation.
"Walmart partnered with YUSA and provided leadership, innovative and startup grants for the Summer Food Programs," said Rush. "We have received $30,000 from YUSA through Walmart to create an innovative approach, along with making a leadership component to the Summer Food Program."