Bridging the hunger gap

Bridging the hunger gap

Partnership between nonprofits and Hazelwood School District provides lunches to students in the summer

By Sara Hardin

Summer school students at McNair and Grannemann elementary schools got to look forward to a healthy meal each day they attended classes this June, thanks to a partnership between Empower North County, the Hazelwood School District and the St. Louis Area Food Bank. The efforts of volunteers and school faculty ensured that a free, well-balanced lunch was made available to every student that was involved in summer classes at each of the schools.

Empower North County is a nonprofit organization that was founded in early 2015 by Melissa Fitzgerald and Kyle Rainbolt of Trinity Church. They decided they wanted to extend their reach further into the community, and have since been hosting an affordable Christmas store and offered free lunches to kids last summer out of the church itself. After considering their options for how to increase the number of kids they could provide lunches to this summer, they decided to connect with the Hazelwood School District.

“We know that, in general, there is a decent percentage of Hazelwood students who receive free and reduced lunch,” explained Fitzgerald. “Kyle connected the food bank and Hazelwood schools. We said that if the schools can host it, we can provide the volunteers. We knew that kids would be fed if we did that, and we were likely to hit students that might not be receiving lunches elsewhere.”

Volunteers were present at the schools Monday through Friday throughout June to distribute lunches to the students. Regina Dixon, a Lead Volunteer for the lunch program, explained how her own experience growing up without much money enriched her experience while feeding the kids this summer.

“The experience was just wonderful, just to see the kids so excited about getting some food,” said Dixon. “Growing up, I was really poor. They didn’t have this sort of thing available. During the summer, you really just didn’t eat much. My mom would make dinner and that would be about it. I think this is a great program, especially for kids who might not have food at home. You don’t want to just assume that there is or there isn’t, but it’s important to be able to have something available to them. We should try to always make sure that our kids have healthy foods so that their brains are growing. That’s just a very important part of growing up. My mom worked three jobs, and she was rarely home. Even working three jobs, she didn’t have the resources to buy food just to be sitting around and pay the bills at the same time.”

The importance of making sure kids are getting fed over the summer extends beyond avoiding momentary hunger. The efforts of organizations like Empower North County and the St. Louis Area Food Bank in feeding growing students help to promote healthy development and, in turn, adequate learning and retention.

“As a parent, I definitely see a difference in my food bill during the summer because my kids are all home and not eating breakfast and lunch at school,” said Fitzgerald. “It can be very difficult if you’re financially struggling, and during the school year providing those meals to your kids is a burden that has been taken from you because they’re getting them from school. Kids need to be fed and have full bellies for proper brain development and to be ready to learn. If we neglect that over the summer, you have kids that come back who have struggled to get their meals during those months. We want the kids fed and happy and healthy over the summer so that they can come back ready to meet their full potential in the fall.”

To learn more about Empower North County and their mission, visit