These Kids Are Hungry!
By Steve Collins
It had been a great start to summer camp, but now, on the last meal of the week, several campers were blatantly breaking rule number six: “Do not carry any food out of the cafeteria.”
As the new program director for South Mountain Christian Camp in Bostic, N.C., I wasn’t sure what to do. Before I could make a decision, however, the executive director, and co-founder of the camp, leaned over to me.
“Just let it go. Don’t worry about it,” she said.
I looked at her, a little puzzled. After all, what’s the point of having a rule if it’s not going to be enforced?
She explained that, because many of the campers would be returning to impoverished homes within the hour, this was their last chance at “good food” for a while. They were stuffing the food into their pockets to take home.
I suddenly saw the campers in a different light. They weren’t greedy. They weren’t rebellious. They were just hungry! My heart went out to them, and I gladly allowed them to take as much as they wanted.
That was 16 years ago. Since then, the camp has continued to reach out to children and youth from economically disadvantaged homes, so we cook some more on Friday evenings for kids to take extra food home. The 40-year policy is that no child will ever be turned away for financial reasons. Instead, need-based scholarships are offered to any family that cannot cover the camp fees; about 80 percent of the campers request financial assistance.
This policy has afforded the camp the opportunity to work with thousands of young people who come from impoverished homes. Nearly all of them qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches at school. Sadly, for many of these kids, that free school lunch is the only nutritious meal they receive most days. When summer arrives, they don’t even have that.
A Partner With Promise
A few years ago, shortly after being promoted to executive director, I attended a local workshop designed to address the issue of providing summer meals for these students. At the workshop, I met Cynthia Ervin, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) Coordinator for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. She told me about the possibility that summer camps could become SFSP sponsors.
I soon realized this opportunity was too good to pass up. She explained that, if the camp became a sponsor, the camp would receive guidance and resources to ensure that every camper received high-quality, nutritious meals during the week. Also, the camp would be reimbursed for each meal it served to children who qualified for the program. I quickly figured the math on a scrap of paper, and realized that the program could bring in $15,000 a year in funding!
I immediately signed up for the mandatory, 2-day sponsor training in order to learn all the details.
Now, I’m not going to mislead you. Following the training, I was overwhelmed. The requirements of becoming a SFSP sponsor would not be met in a couple of days. I decided to take it one step at a time.
I met with the cafeteria manager to review all the meal requirements. We discussed the necessary changes to the camp menu, the serving procedures, and even the cleanup process. We agreed that many of the changes would actually be welcome improvements.
Next, I met with the summer-camp registrar. The biggest issue was the collection of income-eligibility forms for every camper. The camp had already received applications for several weeks, so it was too late to include the eligibility forms in the packets. But given the overall value of the program, it was worth the extra effort to make it work.
Putting Pen To Paper
Once the staff members were on board, I took on the extensive application, on which the instructions were very clear. Two weeks and 80 pages later, I completed the final checklist and mailed it just before the deadline.
When summer camp arrived, I made some major adjustments to my personal schedule to accommodate all the extra paperwork. Meal-preparation forms, daily meal counts, weekly meal counts, delivery receipts, time sheets, and monthly reports were all part of the process, but everything ran more smoothly than I ever expected.
Many of the returning campers and staff enjoyed the improvements made to the food service. I have to admit that I did too.
Upon completing the final report after the first year, I realized the camp had served more than 5,200 free meals to needy kids, and brought in more than $15,400 in needed scholarship funds. What a blessing! I was so proud of what the staff members had accomplished and so grateful for their dedication.
Now entering the third summer as a SFSP sponsor, the camp program gets better each year. The program requirements, while extensive, are not prohibitive. In fact, I’ve become a huge advocate of the program.
Give It A Try
The program is federally funded and available in every state in the U.S. The first step for anyone interested is to contact a state’s representative agency. For more details, visit www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp .
For those who pursue the idea of becoming a SFSP sponsor, here is some advice:
- Make plans early. I didn’t hear about the program until March, and training was in April. Although the camp pulled everything together in a short amount of time, I recommend giving staff members 4 to 6 months to prepare.
- Don’t become discouraged. The sheer volume of paperwork can be overwhelming, not to mention the changes that will likely be made. Take one step at a time, and the goal will be met.
- Be flexible. Many people in the camping industry become stuck in the “way it’s always been done.” Be ready and willing to make some changes. You’ll find that campers will enjoy the improvements.
Steve Collins is executive director at South Mountain Christian Camp in Bostic, N.C. He is a graduate of Toccoa Falls College and has been in the camping profession full-time since 1997. Reach him at email@example.com .