Meet the woman behind the Guilford County Schools Summer Meal Program

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It’s hard to miss the yellow sign outside Irving Park Elementary School. It’s a campus that sits on the edge of one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Greensboro. But the sign is there.

Every Monday through Thursday during the summer months, the sign helps directs young people to one part of a Guilford County-wide program that feeds breakfast and lunch to about 600 children.

Although it’s open to any child 18 years old and younger, most of those who eat here come from low-income homes.

“I would say that in the Guilford County Schools, 50 percent of our children qualify for free or reduced meals,” Wanda Barber told me, as the two of us watched children down slices of pizza and green beans, among other foods.

During the academic year as an operations supervisor for school nutrition, Barber makes sure six school cafeterias in southeastern Guilford County follow United States Department of Agriculture guidelines and procedures.

From mid-June to early August, she runs the school system’s Summer Meal Program.

The children have compelling stories to tell:

“'I haven’t eaten since yesterday and this is breakfast,’” said Barber quoting a child she’s met in the program. “'I haven’t eaten since yesterday.’”

In other words, many of these kids aren’t getting the nutrition they need at home.

“We go through USDA guidelines which means we have to offer them bread/grain, which is usually whole wheat, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, milk and a protein,” Barber said.

The program is federally funded. $500,000 taxpayer dollars helped serve about 250,000 meals last year. And with four more school feeding locations serving this year, Barber expects to serve 270,000.

The big challenge, however, is getting the children to the food. Many don’t have transportation. Others aren’t able to cross busy streets, especially by themselves. It’s why Barber is also focused on community outreach.

“I have about 70 partners that are out in the community serving meals,” she said. “We have faith-based groups, Parks and Rec, Boys and Girls Clubs. Some do personal camps from different locations, their own personal churches.”

The program also has 12 vans (six based in Greensboro, six in High Point) that carry lunches to children. The stops include apartment complexes, churches and parks.

Weekends are also a challenge and Barber is constantly working on getting food to children Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Again, area partner agencies are helping with this, but the need is still huge.

“I don’t understand how people can look in the eyes of a child who is hungry and not want to do something,” Barber said. “It touches me greatly. That’s the main reason I do what I do.”

For more information on the Guilford County Schools Summer Meal Program, call (336) 370-3261 or text “FOODNC” to 877-877. You’ll get a text back showing you the closest five place to you where these meals are served.