Filling the gap when there are no free school lunches

Andrea Cooper-Chamberlain hands Savon Taylor one of the lunches she distributes each day.
Andrea Cooper-Chamberlain hands Savon Taylor one of the lunches she distributes each day. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2013

At 11:15 on a Monday morning, four children under age 8 quietly walked up to Andrea Cooper-Chamberlain's house in Darby Borough to eat.

An unpaid neighborhood do-gooder, Cooper-Chamberlain distributes free lunch every day at noon during the summer, when school lunches are unavailable.

"I can't serve till 12, sweetheart," she told the oldest boy, who displayed the unmistakable demeanor of a hungry child: expectant, quiet, attentive. He wordlessly turned and led the others away.

"They're hungry," Cooper-Chamberlain said, understanding that the final 45-minute wait for these children would be rougher than any vigil for Santa or countdown till a birthday.

"In some cases, it's their only meal of the day," said Cooper-Chamberlain, who turns her front yard on this worn block of two-story brick homes into an oasis for children in need.

Every summer, the hot sun exposes a hard truth: Parents in this area have to scramble to feed children accustomed to free or reduced-price school lunches.

To help fill the gap, the federal government supplies food to the state, which distributes it through feeding sites primarily run by the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, the Philadelphia Housing Authority and - in the suburbs, including Darby - through the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Not every kid who eats a free or reduced-price lunch in school manages to get a free summer meal.

Nationwide, 2.8 million children in July 2012 ate food from the federal Summer Nutrition Programs. That's just one in seven of the low-income children who ate free or reduced-price lunch during the school year, according to a study released this month by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a national antihunger advocacy group.

Pennsylvania did better than the national average last year, with about 21 of every 100 children who eat free or reduced-price school lunches getting summer meals, according to FRAC figures. In New Jersey, it was 19 of every 100.

Locally, more than 160,000 low-income students in public, charter, and Catholic schools in Philadelphia qualified this year for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

But on an average day, about 53 percent of them aren't taking part in summer meals - nearly 86,000 children, the coalition reports.

What's happening to those children this summer isn't known.

All the archdiocese and city can do is make the meals available and hope that children who need them come, said Anne Ayella, assistant director of nutritional development services for the archdiocese.

Ayella's group trained Cooper-Chamberlain to run one of its 450 sites in the Philadelphia suburbs.

"In addition to serving the meals, she works hard to encourage the kids to have good manners, and she teaches them about nutrition and healthy eating," Ayella said. "She's really special."

Born in South Philadelphia, Cooper-Chamberlain, 54, is the mother of four grown children. She runs an event-planning business out of her home. Her husband, Lamont Chamberlain, 49, works in customer service for a nearby U-Haul center.

"I have a passion for children," she said, recalling how, even as a teenager, she persuaded her mother to help her make sandwiches for hungry children on her block.

Cooper-Chamberlain has lived in Darby for 12 years and has been site coordinator for four years.

"The need here is great," she said, referencing Darby's 30 percent poverty rate.

About 30 children age 2 to 17 regularly eat outside Cooper-Chamberlain's modest house, on four tables set up under a blue tent and an umbrella, which she bought herself. She also provides a snack later in the day.

The food is delivered by the archdiocese each weekday morning, and Cooper-Chamberlain stores it on her porch in a massive cooler, which she also purchased.

At noon Monday, Cooper-Chamberlain, with the help of her daughter, Charnae, 25, gave out turkey bologna sandwiches on whole-wheat bread with soy nuts, a peach, and a fruit-and-vegetable juice.

"It's good we have this program," said Savon Taylor, 14, as he slowly ate lunch with his siblings. "It feeds us on days we don't have a lot - when we only have dinner meals.

"And," he said, "it keeps us out of trouble and gives us something to do."

Cooper-Chamberlain organizes games and carnivals. She's conducting a contest for best healthy smoothie recipe using carrots, not a food favorite among the children.

"My smoothie's gonna blow yours away," Michael Taylor, 12, told Savon, his older brother.

"Don't hate. Appreciate," Savon countered, boasting that his "Super Duper Healthy Surprise" contains vanilla yogurt, how about that?

Cooper-Chamberlain clearly derives joy from her noontimes with the kids. And she hopes that other neighbors get involved to feed more children in a hard-time place baked by the July sun.

"In this community, a lot of people are not working, and struggling," she said. "But a lot are working, and struggling still."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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