Nearly two dozen children sat in a circle in the fellowship hall of St. Joseph Catholic Church on Lumpkin Road last week, giggling and playing hand games before their camp leaders called them to the lunch table.
One by one, each child was given a brown paper bag with a sandwich, chips, fruit snacks and a bottle of water.
They giggled and talked as they ate their lunches, oblivious to the hands that carefully prepared it the day before.
“Every day it’s a different denomination or a different organization,” said Randi Moss, the program coordinator for Smart Lunch, Smart Kid.
The program, started last year by Action Ministries, offers free sack lunches to children in Richmond and Columbia counties who qualify for free and reduced-fee school lunches.
Organizations volunteer to prepare lunches by the day or pledge to contribute a certain number of sandwiches each week.
This year, about 300 youngsters are served each day at the program’s four sites in Richmond County: through the Family Y’s summer program at St. Joseph, at Sand Hills Community Center and
Augusta Estates Mobile Home Park, and through a partnership with Hope for Augusta at Heritage Academy.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which tracks data related to the welfare of children, reports that 77.9 percent of Richmond County schoolchildren qualified for free or reduced-fee lunch this year and that 35.8 percent live in poverty.
Many of these children rely on programs like Smart Lunch, Smart Kid during the summer, when school lunches are not available.
Volunteers prepare lunches – typically a sandwich, a salty snack, a fruit snack, and juice or water – five days each week.
They are then delivered to one of the four sites and sometimes door-to-door.
“Sometimes it’s not necessarily safe to walk very far. Even though there might be a site serving something else nearby, they can’t
really walk there, so we go to where they’re at.” said Laurie Cook, the executive director for Action Ministries.
Cook said she and Moss researched which neighborhoods had the greatest need for the service and what services were already offered. They did not want to duplicate service. However, if a meal is served by an organization and that meal is funded by federal or state money, children can’t take food from the site.
Smart Lunch, Smart Kid is funded entirely by donations, either of money or of items to make the lunches. So children are free to take any uneaten items home with them, Moss said.
“More often than not, Randi has kids come up and ask if there’s some left that they can take home,” Cook said, adding that there are rarely leftovers.
Both women said they have seen positive effects of the program, not only in the children served, but also in the volunteers who help.
“It’s really rewarding because you get to see the best in people,” Cook said. “People get really excited about it.”
In some cases, such as with church youth groups, children are preparing the lunches, too.
“It’s amazing how kids help kids,” Moss said, “and especially at some of the camps that we’re partnering with – kids that could be in need of this, in need of these lunches, but they’re helping to serve other kids.”
For more information about the program, visit www.actionministries.net.