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Making a Difference with the “Kids Eat Free” Program at Atrium Health

Making a Difference with the “Kids Eat Free” Program at Atrium Health

By Jennifer Bryant, Senior Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Morrison Healthcare

We know that eating healthy, nutritious food can make people’s lives better. We see it every day in our hospital and we wanted an opportunity to make a difference in our community.

For the first time, Morrison Healthcare and Atrium Health are providing free breakfasts and lunches in Monroe, North Carolina this summer.

Our new “Kids Eat Free” program runs for three weeks, supplementing the free and reduced lunch program provided by the Union County Schools. After teaming up during the week of June 29- July 3, Morrison and Atrium delivered thousands of additional meals to families during the weeks of August 3 and 10.

Children of families in the local school system that live near the hospital receive regular meals from the school system for most of the year. When we learned they would take time off for three weeks this summer, we stepped up to fill in the gap. This new program, sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture, has turned out to be a perfect fit for the goals of the hospital and Morrison Healthcare about how to serve our community best and build a deep partnership with the local school system.

Atrium Health Union is part of a downtown neighborhood with access to a large population that can receive substantial benefits from our combined efforts.   Approximately 30 miles southeast of Charlotte, Atrium Health Union is near Monroe High School, East Elementary School and a mix of older neighborhoods. Monroe Middle School is 1.5 miles away and is part of a residential community that connects back to Atrium Health Union.

Our first week feeding students from June 29 – July 3 was both hectic and exhilarating. We’d never hosted an event like this one, so we weren’t quite sure how many people to expect – and especially not during a pandemic.

We planned for 350 meals the first day and handed out every last one. We quickly ordered more food and milk for the remainder of the week and prepped for 400 on day 2 – again, we handed out everything we made.

As word of mouth spread, the number of people coming here increased. On day 3, we served 454 children and on day 4, 551 children. We fed 2,264 children during the first week, providing 4,528 meals. Over the three week program, we did 15,964 meals.

I’m confident our healthy and nutritious meals have been a hit. A typical lunch will include lasagna, chicken quesadilla, fried chicken, pizza or a barbecue pork sandwich.  All entrees are served vegetables and fresh fruit with milk to drink. Each child also receives an extra bag with fruit, cereal and boiled eggs for protein for the next morning’s breakfast. And on Fridays, we make sure they receive enough food for breakfast over the weekend.

If there is a downside to this special program, it’s that we haven’t had an opportunity to converse and get to know many of the parents and children we are serving. Curbside pick-up is efficient but takes away the human interaction.

But the rewards are tangible. We do get to see the smiling faces of parents and children in their cars and awaiting their meals. And we know we’ve given them a healthy lunch and breakfast for the next morning. That’s when we see what a difference we can make.

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