Vernessa Carter corralled children so she could give them hand sanitizer, and Joan Bolton was busy sweeping the concrete under picnic tables to ensure a cleaner place to eat.
Both women were volunteering in Douglass Park with the Summer Food Service Program in Lexington, which is sponsored by Employment Solutions Inc./ Fresh Approach. They are a part of a group of nearly 30 members of First African Baptist Church who are taking turns serving free lunches to any child in the park who is 18 or younger.
"We really want to impact the community," said Rev. Nathl Moore of First African. "Our church motto and theme is: 'The church in the community for the hearts of the community.' With that, we have to be in the community, and this was a wonderful opportunity extended to us to do some hands-on things during the summertime and impact the kids in the community."
Volunteers like those from First African and the three local agencies that distribute free summer lunches to children were lauded by federal, state and local leaders Wednesday as true investors in the future of the commonwealth.
"We believe so strongly that our children are the most important asset that Kentucky has," first lady Jane Beshear said. "If we invest in these children, in their future, then it is a better tomorrow for all of us."
Beshear was joined by Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services; Lexington Mayor Jim Gray; and Cathy Gallagher of the Kentucky Department of Education's School and Community Nutrition division to kick off the summer feeding program in Castlewood Park Wednesday.
Thornton said 33 million children a day eat school lunches, and of those, 21 million are free or reduced in price. But that number drops dramatically during the summer to 3.5 million a day.
Fortunately, Employment Solutions Inc., Fayette County Public Schools and God's Pantry are making a coordinated effort to provide nutritious meals to any child this summer.
Michelle Coker, director of child nutrition for the schools, said hot meals will be provided at 15 schools June 16 through Aug. 4, with no service on July 4.
More than 150 children were fed last year on the Tates Creek campus, she said, and 100 or so at Booker T. Washington Elementary.
God's Pantry focuses on six centers in Fayette County and several sites outside the county, said Mya Price, a Child Hunger Corps member working with the food agency. One of their sites, Village Branch Library, served more than 80 hot meals daily last year.
Walt Barbour, director of Fresh Approach, a division of Employment Solutions, said the federal government, which finances the summer feeding program through the Department of Agriculture, has made a concerted effort this year to serve more lunches.
Fresh Approach is a program that provides jobs while teaching skills to intellectually challenged adults. Those workers assemble the free lunches that are distributed at 35 sites throughout Lexington.
That free lunch distribution started June 9. Last year, Employment Solutions served 125,000 meals.
There is no income limit for any child being fed. The only requirement, other than age, is that the food be eaten on-site.
Barbour said he is always looking for new distribution sites, and that's why he was glad to have volunteers from First African take Douglass Park.
He said he called Moore because of the proximity of the church to Douglass, and Moore asked for volunteers.
"They had a meeting," Barbour said, "and he asked anyone interested in helping with the summer feeding program to stay after, and 30 people stayed. Everyone was interested and asked questions. It was very, very overwhelming.
"The key to having the kids enjoy the program is to have people who are really vested in the neighborhood," Barbour said. "We were looking for somebody that wants to make a difference with these kids."
The volunteers from First Baptist fit that bill.
"During the summer, some of the kids may not have that nutritious meal," said Lillian Bunton of First Baptist. "I want to make sure I do my part."
Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.