Paul Mathews looks out the window from the Versailles Church of Christ Arise building at noon on a recent weekday, anxious to spot hungry children.
The retired Cross Plains citizen is there everyday as a volunteer, handing out lunches to anyone 18 and under. "I think it's great what they are doing," he explained.
He's referring to Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana. For the first time, between noon and 1 p.m. Ripley County children can get a free lunch, Monday through Friday, until Aug. 3.
Gleaners Food Bank has expanded their outreach to Ripley County, based on a Feed America study indicating 21.6 percent of children or 1,600 in the county, are food insecure. Gleaners has done the same for six other counties in central and southeastern Indiana as part of a summer federal food program.
Gleaners provides 20 million meals a year from different sources to 21 counties. Carrie Fulbright, director of external relations at Gleaners, said they don't see the need abating despite the reported upswing in the economy. Half of their recipients are children and senior citizens. "We decided Ripley County is a good choice and we would not have been able to do so without the great partnership of the church and South Ripley Elementary," she said.
Indiana's free and reduced lunch need rate has increased from 38 percent in 2008 to 47.2 percent in 2012. A June 16 front page story in the Indianapolis Star showed that 1 in 5 Central Indiana children are hungry. The article also indicated Indiana had the nation's largest increase in participation in summer food programs, increasing to 28 percent. It moved Indiana 34th ranking in the nation for participation to 20th.
Fulbright mentioned that 57 percent of students at South Ripley are eligible for free and reduced lunch. South Ripley Elementary Principal Mark Collier confirms the number and said this lunch program is a good thing. "It's a good opportunity for kids nutrition-wise, and also to get together with other kids during the summer." He's glad the church can partner with the school and provide the site.
Thirty lunches, consisting of a turkey or ham and cheese sandwich, chips, fruit, milk, and juice are available. On the first few days in early June when the program started they had 22 local kids enjoy the lunch. Then it tapered off, to below 10. Mathews checks the record book and sees they've had just six, eight, 10, on other days. Mathews is not sure why; maybe transportation problems, maybe they don't know about it. Fulbright said she thinks numbers will pick up later once word gets out. Kathleen French, another church volunteer, said they would like to be able to deliver meals to children outside of Versailles possibly next year.
Some may have heard about it through the church Vacation Bible School since they sent home flyers. Denise Rayburn, who cares for grandkids and other kids in her home nearby, said she thinks it's a good thing, and knows there are a lot of kids who would enjoy and benefit from the free lunch. Her crew often goes to the church for lunch.
Welcoming the kids
On this recent weekday, Mathews is delighted when eight kids enter. He warmly greets them, recognizing a few from previous visits. He guides them to the line, manned by three other volunteers. "I enjoy it," he says, mingling with the kids. He transports the food daily from South Ripley Elementary School to the building for distribution. Gleaners sends a truck weekly with the prepared food. Volunteers will help the children cross the busy street if need be.
Pauline Hart, a volunteer from New Testament Church in Osgood, sits at a table with the kids. She sees a 4 year old struggle opening a package, but can't help. There are rules the volunteers must follow, based on each county health department since it is a federal program, and one rule is not touching the recipient's food. The child can have help from a guardian though. Hart chats with him and the other children at the table. "I can open it by myself. Watch," Brady, 4, says, and he does. He likes the graham crackers best, eats his turkey sandwich, and announces "I'm full." He's taking the chocolate milk back with him. On another day, a little red-headed girl pulls off the meat on her sandwich to eat separately because she didn't like the cheese. The meat was her favorite, she said.
JR Bennett, 17, has returned for lunch. "It's a good thing what they are doing. It's nice." One high school basketball player says it's better than the school lunches. Mackenzie, 7, is taking her chips back with her.
Before the children leave, Mathews tells them to come back again, and "bring more children. He then vacuums the center. He wants them to feel welcome when they come."