By Amanda Litvinov
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For nearly three decades, Sue Brazen-King and Mary Roadcap have worked in the Johnson City Central School District, just west of Binghamton, New York. They now serve the children of some of their earliest students, Brazen-King as a secretary and Roadcap as an elementary classroom aide.
The two education support professionals know the community well, and have seen first-hand the effects of the poverty that has persisted in their area even as the rest of the state recovered from the recession. One of the most obvious problems they see is hunger.
“One teacher I worked with would buy snacks and bring them for her kids every day. I was afraid she would go broke,” says Roadcap. “But it’s just hard to see kids who are so hungry.”
Knowing that so many of their students are at risk of going hungry over the summer, Roadcap, Brazen-King, and their colleagues hit upon using the district’s bookmobile to supplement the regular summer lunch programs to deliver lunches and books directly to kids most in need.
For many low-income families, lack of transportation is a major barrier to their children receiving summer meals, along with lack of awareness about summer programs. Adding lunch to the bookmobile removed those barriers for Johnson City families along the route.
The book mobile travels to three stops every Wednesday, and distributes about 125 lunches. Roadcap just put in a request for more. “The need is growing—we actually ran out last week,” she said.
Children are invited to come on the bus to enjoy lunch, pick a book, and spend time with Roadcap and the bus driver, who are there every day, and other teachers and education support professionals who volunteer each week.
“As much as children say, ‘I can’t wait for summer so I don’t have to go to school,’ they don’t really mean it,” says Roadcap. “They crave the routine, the stability, and being surrounded by caring adults. Some of these kids have it rough, because of the stress that our low-income families are going through.”
The percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch in Johnson City Central District was around 48 percent during the 2007-08 school year, and spiked to 70 percent in 2011-12. The rate was still at 62 percent in 2013-14 (the most recent school year for which data is available), which is more than 15 points above the state average.
Summer is a particularly stressful time for low-income parents juggling multiple jobs, who often struggle to find child care.
“These parents care about their kids just like the rest of us,” says Roadcap. “But some of them were never really parented, and sometimes they need someone to talk to, and I’m here for them, too.” She stocks several crates of books for adults on the bus as well.
The books don’t always make their way back to the bus, but there are no penalties, and kids and adults are welcome to return to the bookmobile and take more.
“We receive so many donations, there will never be a shortage of books,” says Roadcap. “And besides, we figure if it means these kids have some books in their house, it’s a good thing.”
Several children or their family members have apologetically returned books weeks, months, even a year later.
One boy who started coming to the summer bookmobile and lunch program when he was five is now going into the fourth grade. He’s proudly introduced his little sister to the bookmobile, where alphabet books, the Berenstain Bears, and Captain Underpants await.
The educators who run the bookmobile have no doubt that the families look forward to seeing the bus roll up their street every week.
“Honestly, the last few weeks of school these kids are a nervous wreck,” says Roadcap. “They know what lies ahead.”
It eases her mind to be able to check in on them regularly over the summer, even if it’s only on Wednesdays.
Nationwide, only 1 in 6 students who qualify for free summer meals receives them, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).
FRAC’s annual Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation report, released last month, shows that after three years of growth, national participation in summer meals programs plateaued last summer. During July 2015, the programs served nearly 3.2 million low-income children, which was only a slight increase over July 2014.
The report concludes that further investment in the summer meals program is an important step that lawmakers can take in the reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is currently underway. That would allow more districts to find innovative ways to reach hungry kids over the summer, and allow districts like Johnson City Central to expand successful programs.
NEA strongly supports strengthening the summer meals program to improve access for low-income students.
“I firmly believe no child in the U.S. should be hungry,” said Brazen-King. “Kids can’t learn on an empty stomach—there’s lots of proof of that. We need to feed our kids, and if Congress can do something about it, they should.”