In feeding the body, they feed the soul
BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are made up of both bodies and souls – and both must be cared for, having been created in the image and likeness of God.
It fits well with the motto of Joy Jenkins, the cafeteria manager at St. Joseph Catholic School in Bowling Green: “If you can feed a body, you’re feeding a soul.”
This summer, Jenkins – along with other Catholic school cafeteria managers within the Diocese of Owensboro – was involved in a program that served approximately 18,500 free meals to kids in rural or low-income areas around western Kentucky.
That’s a lot of souls fed.
Feeding the hungry
During the school year, many children around the country are able to have nutritious meals thanks to state and federal programs offered for families below certain income brackets.
But when school lets out for the summer, these kids no longer have that option.
That’s where summer meal programs – like the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) in Kentucky – step in.
Sonya Evans is the director of the diocese’s School Food Service, which participates in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, as well as the At-Risk Afterschool Supper Program.
Her office oversees the cafeterias in 14 of the diocese’s 17 schools.
And when school closes for the summer, instead of settling in for a long vacation, she and her office’s administrative assistant, Hannah White, get ready for a busy two-and-a-half months of serving meals to kids who may otherwise go without.
Spreading the word
Evans explained that the SFSP is “the chance for children to get a free, nutritious meal during the summer, who wouldn’t otherwise.”
According to KY Kids Eat, the childhood hunger program of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, (a statewide anti-hunger organization), nearly one out of every five Kentucky children “will struggle with hunger during their childhood. That’s 20% of all Kentucky children who live in a household struggling to put food on the table.”
But the diocese’s School Food Service, with the help of many of its cafeteria managers and employees, is working to change that statistic.
This year, from the second half of May until the end of July, 43 sites around western Kentucky served free breakfast, lunch or supper via the diocese’s School Food Service.
Several sites were actual Catholic school cafeterias, but others were community organizations that partnered with the diocese to serve meals at their locations. In these cases, the food was prepared at one of the Catholic school cafeterias and then delivered by School Food Service employees.
It also paid off: Evans explained that the cafeteria employees, who wouldn’t ordinarily be paid during the summer, were able to take home pay for the hours they worked in feeding hungry local children.
And the diocese’s School Food Service, since it operated as a sponsor for these sites, received reimbursement for the meals served.
Evans said the summer meal sites often coordinated with events taking place, such as Vacation Bible School or camps, but if there was no event, they would offer enrichment activities such as reading or crafts.
The summer of 2019 saw a huge spike in sites sponsored by the diocese’s School Food Service, and Evans knows it was largely due to the cafeteria managers, pastors, and school administrators spreading the word about this initiative.
She said the summer of 2018 had only 16 sites, serving a total of 4,460 meals. But in 2019, they managed to serve approximately 18,500 free meals to children at the 43 sites.
For instance, the Paducah area expanded from just a site at St. Mary School System, to 10 sites in the region.
Owensboro Catholic’s K-3 Campus did not have any events taking place this summer, but Kelly Trogden, the cafeteria manager, was amazed at the number of children they served.
“Compared to last year, it’s like it just blossomed,” said Trogden.
Trogden and her daughter had distributed flyers around the local neighborhood to spread awareness of the free meals, and it worked: one day, the small campus served 44 children.
“It was a really good site because so many families would come in and have lunch,” said Trogden.
White, who visited and reviewed the sites throughout the summer, pointed out “that’s a big deal” if families are coming to non-event sites “for no other reason but to eat” – it showed just how much that site was needed in that area.
Jenkins, the cafeteria manager in Bowling Green, was particularly instrumental in spreading the word throughout her region.
Jenkins said her site fed daily “anywhere from 35, to one day having 85” children this past summer, compared to last year’s average of 15 children per day.
And that was just at St. Joseph. After Jenkins emailed the Warren Association of Baptists, a total of 13 sites around the Warren County area became qualified to serve free summertime meals through the diocese’s School Food Service.
This is quite a jump from last year, during which St. Joseph was the only summertime meal site in the area.
Jenkins said it wasn’t just about distributing food, but also being present and welcoming to those who came: “It gives us an opportunity to truly minister,” she said.
“People said, ‘I feel like I’m somebody; you don’t treat me differently,’” said Jenkins.
Trogden told a story of four little girls who came to eat at the K-3 Campus every single day, rain or shine, sometimes sharing an umbrella.
On the last day, the oldest came up to Trogden to tell her, “I just want you to know how grateful we are.”
“In a lot of cases, food brings you somewhere – but it’s what you ‘get’ when you’re there that keeps you coming back,” said White.
Evans said that she feels “blessed” to be a part of this work, which she refers to as a “ministry.”
“To me, the more we do, the more I want to do,” said Evans. “And with the help of the cafeteria managers and our employees, we’re doing it, too.”
Originally printed in the September 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic