Toledo Free Press will focus a six-week series on the mission of Feed Lucas County Children (FLCC). From July 3 to July 17, Walt Churchill’s markets will participate in a “Round Up Hunger” campaign to raise funds for FLCC.
I recently spent a day as a volunteer with Feed Lucas County Children. My notebook was in my pocket more than in my hand, so the dialogue in this story is based largely on memory and at times is abridged.
Volunteers scoop nachos and fruit onto foam plates as the project’s children file through the tiny kitchen.
It’s easy to get caught up in handing out milk — they almost all choose chocolate over plain — opening bags of chips and trying to restrain the group’s troublemaker, a curly-headed boy of about 8 or 9 who says he cusses a lot because he’s really bad.
“He called her ugly,” a braided-haired girl says of the boy, pointing at a small girl with a bright smile. He admits to the offense.
“Do you really think she’s ugly?”
Volunteer Crystal Evans stirs soup at the feed lucas county children kitchen.
“I think she’s pretty,” he whispers.
The younger children seem blissfully unaware that eating free food in a community center says anything about the difficulty of their lives. Their faces retain the look of peaceful fun lacking in some of the older children and the few mothers who accompany them in.
Andrea takes a sip from a milk box and shares a few Doritos as she monitors her three children. She says she will bring her family down to eat almost every night during the summer.
The program is often more an aid than a necessity for her. She has a job at a hot dog restaurant, which she says barely pays the bills, and she can typically make her food stamps stretch for the month. But she forgot to re-file for stamps this week.
“It does come in handy now because we don’t got no food in the house,” she said.
In Lucas County, 29,962 children younger than 18 — 27.4 percent — live at or below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. During the school year, the National School Lunch Program ensures at least one meal a day for them. But that program halts over the long summer break, leaving many children scrounging for food.
Feed Lucas County Children’s kitchen opens at 8 a.m. all summer, shipping breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner to 67 sites that include church camps, community centers and parks in depressed areas.
The main course for lunch is taco meat, which the kids won’t know is made from turkey, a healthier option than beef. The pans scorch the workers’ bare hands as they gingerly lower them into heat-retaining bins. State regulations require kitchens like FLCC’s to serve food at 140 degrees Fahrenheit; most of the pans come out of the steamers between 190 and 200 degrees.
The kitchen becomes a flurry of clattering pans when someone orders 100 trays of chicken.
“Two at a time,” says Kayla, a regular volunteer unimpressed by the tentative efforts of the new guy.
The whole operation is well-organized and precisely documented — a significant improvement in the past four years, Luke Siebeneck says. Luke’s father Tony founded FLCC in 2002 when a year of grassroots research proved to him that child hunger was widespread in the Toledo area.
The program has grown from serving about 7,000 meals total the first summer to today when it might serve more than 6,000 on a busy day.
In Tony’s eyes, that number is dwarfed by the remaining need, but he is running out of space to meet the demand. Tony said the kitchen could handle about 8,000 meals a day, but the time is quickly coming when that won’t be enough and FLCC will turn away hungry mouths.
Some of those mouths are taking advantage of the program.
“There’s nothing like not cooking lunch, especially when you got a lot of kids,” says Twana, whose son ate a bag of Doritos and left fruit, a banana and taco salad virtually untouched on his plate.
She says he is a picky eater and she will have to prepare him lunch at home after all.
But the struggles of the FLCC servers to keep the children eating at the site tells a different story for many of these families. The free meal comes with a condition — if you’re between the ages of 1 and 18, you can eat here, but you can’t take your plate home with you.
Lamon, who serves lunch at Moody Manors before his third-shift job, calls after a little girl as she carries her plate back toward a woman standing behind a glass door.
“This is for my gran,” the girl explains to him.
The woman sees the adults looking at her.
“I don’t want that,” she says loudly, and tells the girl to eat outside.
While adults taking food meant for the children is a major concern for servers, few parents actually accompany their children out.
“You see a lot of little kids coming out here and their parents are still asleep,” Lamon says.
It’s about 11:30 a.m.
The troublemaker finally allows his plate to be thrown away. He’s done playing, done tormenting the children around him. His pretty friend has gone, as have Andrea and her family.
It’s a good thing. The server, Marquita, said almost 10 minutes ago that food had run out — they must have underestimated the number of children who would come; it’s a number in constant flux, varying by thousands across Toledo from day to day.
The crew begins cleaning up, but there is a noise at the door as someone struggles to open it. Two young brothers come in.
“Are you hungry?”
Marquita smiles and puts chips and a banana, all that’s left, on plates for them.
It’s not much, but she’ll be back tomorrow.
Tags: 13abc, Bridges, Columbia Gas of Ohio, Doni Miller, Feed Lucas County Children, Lucas County, Mercy Children's Hospital, Patrick Timmis, Round Up Hunger, Toledo Free Press, Tony Siebeneck, Walt Churchill’s Markets