FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — The University of North Georgia’s Summer Food Service Program is turning its attention to Forsyth County where it hopes to serve meals to an estimated 400 underprivileged children this summer.
This year’s client list is the lowest since the program’s inception in 2012 — a mark of success, according to Pamela Elfenbein, who serves on the team with staff and students administering the program.
“We have done what we set out to do,” said Elfenbein, a professor of sociology and human services at UNG. “The action UNG and its partners took to serve hungry children educated the public about the food needs and changed the community’s attitudes and behaviors.”
Elfenbein said counties that previously participated in the meal program will operate summer food programs within their own borders. They include Hall, Habersham, Jackson, Lumpkin, and Stephens counties.
These counties are operating the Seamless Summer program conducted through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program, she said. The Seamless Summer program allows school systems to provide free meals to children 18 years old and younger from low-income areas. It enables Georgia school systems to take over the university’s summer program, which also is funded by a USDA grant.
“They can reach many more nutritionally at-risk children than we could,” Elfenbein said.
Over the past seven summers, Elfenbein and her team have served more than 100,000 meals to thousands of students in as many as seven counties — some received lunch, some received breakfast, and some received both.
Elfenbein said her group plans to make the program’s eighth and most likely final summer end memorably. For example, children at Cumming Elementary School will receive breakfast and a hot lunch four days a week. Last summer, children were treated to a hot lunch on three days.
While many children will receive their meals at Cumming Elementary and two other schools, a bus will take food to three other sites in Forsyth County to reach children who cannot access the school sites.
Gisela Cruz, a senior at UNG majoring in human services delivery and administration, said the summer program acts as a service-learning opportunity for students.
“This gives me and other students the opportunity to do hands-on work in our chosen field, and we are helping people in need,” said Cruz who is participating in her second year with the program. “Last year, I got to know the children and shared my stories with them and had one-on-one time.”
This summer, the 24-year-old from Cumming will work behind the scenes with Elfenbein, too.
“It will give me insight on the administrative level and help me determine what kind of master’s degree in social work that I want to earn,” Cruz said. “This will also further my knowledge of the skills that I will need to overcome any challenges.”
Elfenbein said the summer program overcame its challenges thanks to its community partners. This year’s partners include United Way of Forsyth County, Cumming First United Methodist Church, Cumming Elementary School and Forsyth County Nutrition which acts as the food vendor. The knowledge and data gained over the past seven years about food insecurity issues in northeast Georgia will help identify the hunger hot spots and target children in those areas because nutrition is key for them, Elfenbein said.
“When children don’t have their nutritional needs met, they can’t learn,” she said. “They go back to school with learning deficits.”