In 2010, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department-STEP One conducted an independent study. They found that many Hamilton County students who relied on the breakfast and lunch programs during the school year were going hungry in the summer and are in need of free summer meal programs.
“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 Rush, who is now the director of the James A. Henry Community YMCA in Chattanooga.
The USDA says that more than 12 million children in the U.S. live in “food insecure” homes.
These families don’t have enough food for every family member to lead a healthy life, according to No Kid Hungry. This doesn’t always mean there is nothing to eat, though. It can mean that children get smaller portions than they need or that parents aren’t able to afford nutritious foods.
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 Hamilton County Health Department, YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga and the YMCA of the USA.
“The YMCA of the USA had just partnered with Walmart to help YMCAs across the country address food insecurity in their community through seed grants,” says Rush. “Our group considered this prime opportunity to address the issue here locally. 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.”
Kids Count data for 2017 indicated there were 20,840 Hamilton County school children enrolled in the food programs.
The YMCA partners with Hamilton County Schools, Northside Neighborhood House, Girls, Inc., the Boys and Girls Clubs and many other non-profit organizations to prepare and distribute 7,000 meals a day. They come from kitchens in Hamilton, Rhea and Bradley counties. There are 130 summer sites and 87 after-school sites. Since launching in 2011, the food program has prepared and delivered more than 2 million meals. There were 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. “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. They learn about water safety and STEM, 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. The Y was also able to take the boys on a canoe trip. They also connected 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, religious organizations 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 [email protected].
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