ROCKINGHAM COUNTY — Local volunteers and Rockingham County Schools have teamed up yet again with several other partners to provide much-needed meals to youngsters during the summer months.

The Rockingham County Schools Summer Food Service Program offers free summer meals for all kids and teens 18 and under.

No sign-up is required for the service, offered at McMichael High School in Mayodan, Leaksville Spray Elementary in Eden and Moss Street Elementary in Reidsville.

Breakfast is served from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. at all three locations, and lunch is offered from 11:30 a.m. — 1:00 p.m.

The serving sites not only provide tasty and nutritious meals to students and programs on site, but also to walk-ins, as well as regional programs that pick up meals for students.

Since the start of the hunger-fighting initiative five summers ago, county kids have benefited from well over 10,000 hot meals.

Volunteer Coordinator Mary D. Martin said the program is about more than just offering meals to students in an environment where they are not made to feel self conscious or prove economic need.

“If we fuel their hunger, then they can learn,” Martin said. “A hungry kid can’t learn, and we don’t want to see a gap between the summer months and when they start back in the fall and have to catch back up.”

Martin said the program’s great volunteer base means students at each dining site are welcomed and greeted with warmth.

“Sometimes, when you come and get a lunch, you may feel a certain kind of way,” said Martin, taking a break from a busy morning to discuss the program at Moss Street Elementary last week.

“The volunteers try to make sure the students know that his is a welcoming place for you — that you’re safe, that we care and we are here because we love you.”

The program also leads to conversations about issues that may not get discussed otherwise and helps kids develop social skills through interactions with other students.

It can further serve as the foundation for developing a relationship with a coach or mentor, Martin said.

Martin has been public in her attempt to bring positive influences to the forefront.

Alongside her “super volunteers,” like Sam Doggett, who is active every day, talking to students as the come through, Martin has pushed for public officials to give back through the program.

She’s called on the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners to spend some time giving back and showing the next generation about their county government duties.

Martin has also approached law enforcement agencies about volunteering with good result.

Later this month, two officers from the Reidsville Police Department will take shifts at the Moss Street site four times a week.

“Those students will see a police officer other than with the blue light on,” Martin said. “It will give them an opportunity to see them in a different light, as a human being that they can develop a relationship and rapport with.”

Through her three years as volunteer coordinator, Martin said she’s seen the major difference the program has made for students, who alongside their parents, seem very appreciative.

“When they come through and get their meals, they are so happy,” Martin said. “ … We are not just feeding them physically, we are feeding their minds. I just want the parents to know that when their child comes here, they’re not just getting a meal. They are getting good conversation, good leadership, compassion and people who care ... that communicate with them.”

While the main target of the food assistance program is students, parents may also purchase meals for $3.75.

All proceeds from those purchases go back into the food service program.

A resounding need

According to data, the need to assist continues to grow in the locally, statewide and nationally.

According Kids Count, an Annie E. Casey Foundation project that tracks the well-being of children in the United States, the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch increased from 55% to 65.2% between the 2008-09 and 2017-18.

Across the state, that percentage has climbed from 49% to 59.4% over the same 10-year period.

At the federal level, the National School Lunch program served nearly 30 million children daily during the 2017-18 school year, according to the USDA.

While the program has seen a steady decline over the last seven years, nearly 75% of the 4 billion lunches served across the U.S. in 2018 were either free or reduced in price.

And while classrooms go silent in June and the bell takes a break from marking the start of classes, the need to silence the hunger pains of less fortunate students remains.

In 2018 alone, the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program provided more than 145 nutritious meals and snacks to children when school was out of session.

Over the last five years, Martin and volunteers alike have worked diligently to offer nutritious meals to all ages during the summer months.

Most important for Martin and other volunteers, is making sure the word is out to everyone in the county about the service.

“Rockingham County is a big county and we service a lot of students,” said Martin, who partners with programs such as the Salvation Army to distribute information about the food service.

Martin and others place flyers in student backpacks and distribute them across the county to families in need.

“This is just an awesome, awesome program,” Martin said. “We don’t want anyone to be denied access to it.”

The RCS Summer Food Service Program is still looking for volunteers for the remainder of the summer.

Those interested in offering help can contact Martin via email at mdmartin38@yahoo.com

“It’s nothing to have the services available if we don’t have people and volunteers that are willing to provide the service that the students need,’’ Martin said. “We have been very fortunate to where a lot of churches, organizations and clubs and individuals have stepped up.”

The Rockingham County Schools Summer Food Service Program runs at all three locations through Aug. 8.

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Joe Dexter is a staff writer for RockinghamNow. He can be reached at 336-349-4331 ext. 6139 or @JoeDexter_RCN on Twitter.

Joe Dexter is a staff writer for RockinghamNow and covers Reidsville, Wentworth, courts, crime and government.

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