A small group of children walk out of the Atrium Health University City hospital cafeteria and head directly to the crafts table. Volunteer students from UNC Charlotte’s School of Social Work greet them with smiling faces and art supplies in hand. A loud buzz fills the lobby as only the voices of young kids can do, while little hands craft get well soon cards for hospital patients.
As the children decorate cards, volunteers show parents and guardians to a table stocked with fresh produce. Much like the meals they just received in the cafeteria, families are welcome to take a bag full of eggplant, sweet potatoes and collards, free of charge.
Each week day, children and guardians flow through the lobby to receive a free breakfast and lunch provided at the hospital. This is the third summer that Atrium University has offered the Kids Eat Free program, which assists families that are struggling to replace the free meals provided by the public education system throughout the school year. Kids Eat Free has to date provided more than 3,500 meals to local children.
The UNC Charlotte Academy for Research on Community Health, Engagement and Services, in collaboration with UCity Family Zone and University City Partners, recognized that meeting the immediate need for meals was only the beginning of aiding these families. With a $10,000 grant funded by the Foundations of the Carolinas, these organizations have partnered to introduce “Feed Every Need,” a new program offering additional support.
Feed Every Need expands the Free Summer Lunch program offered by Atrium Health and focuses on meeting holistic needs of participants, according to social work professor Sonyia Richardson. Feed Every Need provides resources to meet not only physical necessities but also mental and emotional needs.
“Some of these families may leave the program full from the food but holistically empty,” said Richardson. “This program provides onsite support and directly connects families to resources and programs in the community. It essentially becomes a one-stop shop.”
UNC Charlotte students connect participants with agencies in housing, child care, crisis assistance, clothing, furniture, job training, immigrant/ refugee services, counseling services, educational services, free/low-cost health care and transportation.
“We have a family who utilizes the program for breakfast and lunch every day, and they expressed in a conversation with me that they were low on gas funds,” said student social work service coordinator, Erin Meehan. “We were able to provide them with money to purchase gas so they can continue to access the program this week.”
While volunteers discuss needs and offer assistance to parents, other social work students connect with the children through educational games and activities. Depending on the day of the week, children can learn about nutrition through cooking demonstrations, talk with a doctor on Wellness Wednesdays, or join in games and craft projects.
Not only are children and families benefiting from this program, but the student volunteers are as well. According to Richardson, Feed Every Need offers students the opportunity to apply the skills they have learned in the classroom to impact their local community.
Other members of the community are getting on board to further the impact. The program has received support from Loaves & Fishes and Camino Community Center through donations of fresh groceries, clothing and health care assistance.
“To have a lasting impact on a person’s health, wellness and social mobility, we must see that person and their environment as a whole. It is wonderful to provide families in need with food, but we can’t stop at food,” said Meehan. “If a person or family needs food, there is high likelihood that they would also benefit from additional resources. Feed Every Need allows us the opportunity to not only break bread with members of our community, but to also connect with them as human equals and help them access the care they deserve.”