In 2010, an independent study was conducted by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department-STEP One, and the statistics indicated that many of Hamilton County's children who relied on the breakfast and lunch programs during the school year were going hungry in the summer.
"Less than 7 percent of the children enrolled in the food program through the schools were actually receiving assistance during the summer months. Several community leaders, John Bilderback, Carol Ricketts and myself realized what was happening to these children in our community, and it became our mission to do something about it," says Bill Rush, who is now the director of the James A. Henry Community YMCA in Chattanooga.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 12 million children in the United States live in "food insecure" homes. These families don't have enough food for every family member to lead a healthy life, but this doesn't always mean there is nothing to eat. It can mean that children get smaller portions than they need or that parents aren't able to afford nutritious foods.
The program envisioned to help feed these children, Mobile Fit, began in 2011 as a partnership between the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, Hamilton County Department of School Nutrition, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga and the YMCA of the USA.
"The YMCA of USA had just partnered with Walmart to help YMCAs across the country address food insecurities in their community through seed grants. Our group considered this prime opportunity to address the issue here locally," says Rush. "Our first year, the YMCA opened seven sites and they served just under 200 meals a day. Through the years, however, the program has evolved and grown like crazy."
According to Kids Count data for 2017, there were 20,840 children enrolled in the food programs through the schools in Hamilton County. The YMCA partners with Hamilton County Schools, Northside Neighborhood House, Girls Inc., the Boys and Girls Club and many other nonprofit organizations to prepare and distribute 7,000 meals a day from kitchens in Hamilton, Rhea and Bradley counties at 130 summer sites and 87 after-school sites. Since launching in 2011, the food program has prepared and delivered more than 2 million meals — 750,000 in the last year alone.
"The meals get to all of the different sites in a variety of ways," says senior program director Laura Horne, who actually started out as one of the Mobile Fit Summer Food Program team members. "In addition to the school-based locations and partner agencies, we have 25 Mobile Fit sites that pick up meals and deliver them to parks and apartment complexes Monday through Saturday. I love that we provide food for the children, but that's not all we do. Children who come to eat also get to participate in activities, learn about water safety and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and we can connect both children and parents to helpful resources."
For example, one mother of four whose husband had recently left her was having difficulty with her two older boys. In addition to feeding the four children, the Y was able to take the boys on a canoe trip and connect them to Tech Town, where they attended a camp.
Packaging 7,000 meals takes a lot of hands, but it's not just about the meal; it's about connecting the kids with the resources they need, building trust and healthy relationships, and providing opportunities for encouragement.
"It takes about 250 volunteers to make this happen during the summer," Horne says. "We have some volunteers who have been with us since the beginning. Small groups, churches and school groups have come to help us. What I love about this program is it not only provides for people in need in our community, it also provides a place for people to give back."
If you would like more information about this program or want to be a Food and Fun volunteer, call Laura Horne at 423-805-3361 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.