Published August 12, 2016
A group of children gathers at a picnic table on the grounds of the Affinity Old Post Apartments in east Aberdeen, happily eating their lunches in the shade while others run through jets of water in the nearby spray park to cool off on an early August afternoon.
The children's lunches are provided courtesy of the Harford County Public Schools summer mobile meal program, called the Summer Table Program.
Children and their caregivers can either visit sites throughout Harford County, such as schools or local Boys and Girls Clubs, to get a meal during the summer, or in the case of Affinity Old Post apartments, the meals can come to them.
On a recent afternoon, employees of HCPS Food & Nutrition Services, clad in bright orange T-shirts, took box lunches from their white van and gave them to children and adults at Affinity Old Post Road. The apartment complex is one of at least 10 sites in where mobile meals have been delivered during the summer.
"It's the most rewarding job, feeding these kids in the summertime," HCPS employee Earliene Klapka said.
Klapka said the children come up to the van each day, asking the staff, "what do you have?"
"It might be their only meal of the day," she noted. "We don't know that."
Mobile meals vans go to at least 10 sites in Aberdeen, Edgewood, Havre de Grace and Joppa, including libraries, parks, apartment complexes and churches, according to a web page on the summer meals program maintained by the nonprofit Healthy Harford.
The school system partners with multiple community organizations, such as Healthy Harford, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harford County, the Harford County Public Library and Mason-Dixon Community Services Inc., to provide summer breakfasts and lunches at mobile and stationary sites.
Meals are available free for children ages 2 to 18, according to HCPS spokesperson Jillian Lader.
Call 410-638-4099 or visit http://www.healthyharford.org/?p=3186 for more information. Summer meal service ended at most locations Aug. 11, but it will run through Aug. 18 at the libraries.
The school system has been providing meals during the summer for more than 20 years, according to Lader. The mobile meals component was added in 2014.
An average of 150 children per day received meals through the mobile program during the summer of 2015 – that number has grown to an average of 275 children a day this summer, Lader said.
It costs about $17,000 a year to run the mobile meals program, including food, transportation, labor and "miscellaneous expenses," according to Lader.
Funding for summer food service comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"There is no cost to HCPS," Lader wrote in an email.
Forty-nine locations around the county have been used for stationary and mobile summer meal service, according to Kristen Sudzina, a school food service specialist. The meals are prepared at the Aberdeen High School and Edgewood High School cafeterias and then sent to the various locations.
Sudzina said 42 food and nutrition employees, who work in school cafeterias during the academic year, have worked in the summer program this year. The employees work at mobile and stationary sites.
"They do develop a bond with these children that come in every day, and they want to make sure they're fed over the summer," Gary Childress, supervisor of food and nutrition for the school system, said.
Klapka is a food and nutrition manager at the North Harford High School cafeteria during the school year.
Wendy Fahnestock, who was also handing out meals at the Affinity Old Post Apartments, said she works in the cafeteria at Halls Cross Road Elementary School in Aberdeen.
The school is a short distance from the apartment complex, and Fahnestock said she sees many Halls Cross Roads students there during the summer.
"I see all these kids here, they're my babies," she said.
Fahnestock has worked for HCPS for eight years, and has participated in the summer meals program for seven.
"These kids need it," she said. "You know when they're waiting [for food] they're hungry."
Fahnestock said she has even helped families on her own time – she recalled filling a box of food from her home and bringing it to a woman who lives at the Affinity apartments.
She said she'd like to see even more children getting summer meals.
"I know they're out there," she said.
An average of 34 children per day get meals at the Affinity apartments, according to Sudzina. She said an average of 25 children are fed each day at the team's next stop, the Aberdeen Library.
Employee Ilka Carey, who provides mobile meals to children at the library Monday through Thursday, said up to 51 children have been fed at the Franklin Street branch some days.
"They really appreciate the lunches that they receive," Carey, who works at the Aberdeen High School cafeteria during the school year, said.
The lunches include sandwiches, fruits and vegetables and milk; breakfast includes cereal, or muffins and buns on certain days, fruit, juice and milk, according to menus posted on the Healthy Harford site.
Klapka helped one girl at the library put toppings on her sandwich – containers with toppings such as lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and condiments were set out.
"Do you want a lot or a little?" she asked the girl, who was eyeing the lettuce container.
The girl indicated she wanted a lot, and Klapka obliged.
"How about mayonnaise, have you got that?" she asked as the girl turned to walk back to her table.
The girl turned around and grabbed a mayo packet.
The children must consume their meals on-site, and they can put items they don't want on a share table for other children, Carey said.
"Sometimes they'll eat everything, because they say they don't know what they're going to eat later," Carey noted.
She said she asks children what they plan to fix for dinner that night and they often tell her they don't know.
"There is a real need over here," Carey said.
A growing need
The increase in the number of children served comes from both a need in the community and more people learning about the summer meals program, according to Childress, the food and nutrition supervisor.
Childress said 31 percent of Harford County's nearly 38,000 public school children are eligible for the federal Free and Reduced-Price meals program, or FARMs, which allows students from low-income families to get meals during the school day.
The FARMs rate was in the "low 20s" eight years ago, Childress said. He noted the rate has leveled off, though.
"Mainly, it's a factor of the economy," Childress said. "People are having a rough time."
Summer meals sites that are designated as "open," where any child in the community can get a meal, are in areas that have a high FARMs rate, according to Childress.
Other sites are "closed," meaning they have been set up for a specific summer program, and meals are only provided to the children in that program, he said.
The national economy has started to recover in recent years after the recession of 2007 to 2009, but pockets of poverty remain in the northern part of Harford and along the Route 40 corridor. Earlier this summer, the county government began partnering with two local non-profits to offer a mobile food pantry for northern Harford residents in need.
"As well off as much of Harford County is, we have a lot of families that are really food insecure and just plain destitute," said Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, the union representing HCPS teachers.
Burbey has been a teacher for 15 years, 12 of them in Harford County. During the school year, he and some of his colleagues keep snacks in their classrooms for students they know have missed breakfast at home, or they did not get to school in time for breakfast, he said.
"You can't learn if you're hungry," Burbey said.
He said a lack of access to proper nutrition affects "every aspect of a child's development," not just their ability to learn. He said a lack of food affects a child's growth, as well as his or her social standing among peers.
"It's a real tragedy, to be honest, and it's more prolific in Harford County than people realize," Burbey said.
Munch and read
In addition to Aberdeen, mobile meals are distributed at the libraries in Edgewood, Havre de Grace and Joppatowne – an average of 25 children are fed each day at Aberdeen, 25 at Havre de Grace, 10 at Joppatowne and 32 at Edgewood, according to Sudzina.
The Harford County library system started partnering with the mobile meals program last year, according to Harford County Public Library Director Mary Hastler.
Library staff learned about it during Rolling Reader visits to stationary meals sites, which brought books and computers to the children.
"We said, 'Hey, this is really awesome,'" Hastler said of mobile meals.
Library officials then contacted school officials about getting involved.
"It's just a natural fit because so many kids in the community come to the library," Hastler said.
She said children visit to read, use computers or just get out of the summer heat.
Librarians often visit the children as they are eating to talk about books that are part of the summer reading program. Hastler said children can check out books or read them at the library, and they can participate in daily activities once they finish their meals.
"It's a really nice way to spend the day," Hastler said.