2020 had a unique set of challenges for Mardi Vincent even before COVID numbers started to rise across the nation. New leadership at her home church had decided to discontinue sponsorship of the Summer Food Service Program, a USDA program that provides free meals to children when school is out of session leaving kids without access to school meals. Mardi, a church volunteer, set out to find a new church to take over sponsorship of the sites that relied on the program. She landed at Somerset Anglican Fellowship and began to build a coalition of volunteers to help serve more meals than ever before. Her success this summer, she says, was due to utilizing grab and go and bundling meal waivers to serve the rural population of Somerset County.
In 2019, Mardi sponsored programming at Confluence Community Center in a rural part of Somerset County serving lunch to about 10-15 kids one day a week. With multiple day bundling becoming an option in summer 2020, Mardi was able to provide three breakfasts and three lunches to each kid per distribution on Tuesdays and Fridays. This transformed the site from serving 10-15 meals per day to about 100 meals per day. More parents and grandparents came to pick up kids’ meals because they only had to drive to the center twice to receive six days’ worth of meals. The site also served meals in a drive-thru way to keep both site volunteers and meal recipients safe.
At the Berlin site, the story was similar. The site had been serving just 5-10 kids three days per week. With grab and go, the site served about 40 meals per day in 2020.
In 2019, Mardi oversaw 16 sites that served 6,678 meals. In 2020, the number of sites decreased to five, but nearly 27,000 meals were served. This was a more than 300 percent increase from just one year ago.
Serving more meals is not the only thing Mardi was proud of this past summer. She also spoke about her army of church volunteers and the high-quality, local milk, meat and produce that she was able to afford since more meals meant a higher reimbursement. Mardi and her volunteers took on the challenge of figuring out how to make kids’ favorite meals high-quality, in huge quantities and served cold but able to be reheated. They learned how to cook large batches of foods like macaroni and cheese, safely cool it, then package it for kids to take home to re-heat.
“Kids absolutely loved the food this year, and parents loved it because the quality of the meat, produce and milk was better than a family may be able to afford regularly at home,” said Mardi.
Mardi was also able to incorporate more local produce, milk and meat into the foods her volunteers cooked for kids. She even began serving more than the required amounts of food items, giving extra milk or extra produce to kids when possible. A few times throughout the summer, kids also received a cookie from a local bakery, or another treat along with the required components of the meal thanks to generous community donors.
Without the grab and go and bundling waivers, most of Mardi’s sites would go back to serving just lunch twice per week. “We would be letting a lot of families down if we had to go back to the old rules,” she said. “Our sites don’t have the staff or volunteers available to serve congregate meals five or six days each week, and we don’t have the drivers to get meals there every day. Most of our sites that love the heat and eat meals would get cold sandwiches if we went back to congregate meals,” she explained.
If grab and go and bundling waivers were to continue, “we could take this anywhere,” said Mardi. “Our church’s volunteers loved helping out this past summer. We had feeding kids down to a science. We loved being able to put money back into Somerset while feeding Somerset kids.”