WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Youth center feeds hundreds: School closures could leave some children hungry

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Tony Wellington slid a tray of chicken breasts onto a food prep table so more hot to-go lunches could be assembled at The SPOT.

It was the first day of emergency meal assistance program initiated in response to a two-week school closure to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“Tony Wellington, on top of being a talented chef, has been a dedicated SPOT employee for many years. He was essential to success today,” said Baylie Gagne, an organizer of the free meal distribution effort. “The SPOT kitchen staff made this happen. They came in last-minute, put together a menu and did a great job packing and getting the meals out to the pickup area.”

Olive Martin of Wilson ladled green beans and a pear treat to complete the meals, while Bill Jeffrey made the sandwiches.
“I’ve got 17 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren; I’ve been doing food forever,” Martin said. “I am happy I am helping other children in the community.”

Gagne said 227 meals were served at lunch Monday.

“Most of those have registered online, so that’s working great,” Gagne said. “Our count is looking very accurate so we won’t have much food waste.”

Michelle Knight was among those pulling into the drive-thru to pick up meals.

“It’s really nice. It is a great opportunity for the kids,” Knight said. “I just love it. It is a wonderful program. I think they are awesome.”

Knight said the meals will feed three children, and she will return Tuesday for more meals.

“It went better than expected, so it will only improve from here,” Gagne said. “There were a lot of new components but it went smooth.”

VOLUNTEERS STEP UP

“The volunteer response has been amazing,” Gagne said. “We know it was a tight turnaround time from plan to signup for volunteers, and we can’t thank them enough. Not all, but the majority of volunteers are Wilson County Schools teachers.”

Ryan Sulkowski, head football coach at Hunt High School, was among the volunteers delivering hot meals Monday.

“I’m just trying to give back,” he said. “The SPOT provided a pregame meal for us all season. I think it’s great what they are doing here.”

Sulkowski lauded Matt Edwards — CEO at the Wilson Youth United facility whose name stands for Sharing Positive Outcomes Together — for organizing the meal distribution.

“He does a great job caring about the kids in this community and other communities and especially in this unprecedented time to be able to feed the children in and outside setting is amazing,” Sulkowski said. “This is a great thing that they are doing, and any way I can help out I try to step in.”

Volunteer Bryan Holley, who works as a school improvement coach at Lee Woodard Elementary School, said the meal program meets a real need.

“I think this is amazing,” Holley said. “One of my biggest concerns when all this started was making sure that the kids were being fed. School is these children’s security. I don’t think that people realize how important the schools mean to the community. This is a way that the community can come together. I think this partnership between The SPOT and the schools is a great thing. It is a sense of community all around.”

Those interested in volunteering or ordering food can visit http://thewilsonspot.org. Organizers prefer that food be ordered online in advance.

SERVING A NEED

Gagne anticipated that some 350 spaghetti dinners might be served Monday night.

Online applications received by The SPOT requested on average 3 ½ meals each.

“It is going really good so far,” Gagne said. “Of course there are some learning curves to it, but I think we have already improved since starting this morning at 10:45.”

“We have our food service coming from the kitchen being placed on the tables, they are only coming out in groups as cars arrive,” Gagne said. “We have two drive-thru lanes. They are designed for as minimal contact as possible. Only one volunteer at a time, two total, will make contact with the people in the cars.”

Gagne said changes have been made to the breakfast arrangement.

On Tuesday, breakfast will be served from 8 to 9 a.m. because The SPOT had received reservations.

On Wednesday and the weekdays thereafter, people will have a shelf-stable breakfast option that will be available from 10:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. along with lunch.

Gagne said the change was made at the request of the Summer Food Service Program, funding source for the breakfast and lunch meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the program.

“We are incredibly grateful to the Wilson SPOT for offering free, hot meals to our students and their families,” Superintendent Lane Mills said in a prepared statement. “When the decision to close schools was made by the governor, one of our main concerns was how to provide food to our students in need. The SPOT stepped up right away, which allowed us time to figure out our own plan as a school district. Their support means the world to us.”

SCHOOLS OFFER MEALS

The majority of Wilson County Schools’ 10,980 students depend on free or reduced lunches while they’re in school.

Starting Wednesday, the school district will offer free meals for children ages 1-18 at sites throughout Wilson County from noon to 1:30 p.m. each day. Families can pick up a bag that will include lunch for that day and breakfast for the next morning, spokeswoman Amber Lynch explained.

Curbside pickup will be offered at Lucama, Frederick Douglass, Wells, Vick, Hearne and Winstead elementary schools and Toisnot, Darden and Elm City middle schools. Children do not have to be present.

Lynch said Wilson County Schools’ nutrition and transportation departments are collaborating to make the free meals available.

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