When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools statewide at the end of March, low-income families lost a lot more than face-to-face instruction from teachers. Gone were free weekday meals for their children.
Finding a way to feed kids and teens who wouldn’t otherwise get those meals became the overnight mission of Emily Chatelain, a Baton Rouge-based national consultant for school lunch programs and founder of the nonprofit Three O’Clock Project. The organization has provided free after-school and summer meals at no cost to school-aged children in the Capital City since 2017.
“We knew the school closures were going to be a big deal for at-risk kids, so we positioned ourselves to jump in and help, even before the [closure] announcement was made,” Chatelain says. “We started mobilizing to see what we could do to become a feeding site.”
East Baton Rouge Parish alone serves about 50,000 meals a day in a given year through the National School Lunch Program.
After schools shut down in late March, seven school cafeterias initially kept serving grab-and-go meals. That was not enough to meet the local demand.
Moreover, some of those cafeterias had to cease operations when a few employees became ill with the coronavirus. Chatelain’s Three O’Clock Project filled gaps not just in East Baton Rouge Parish but also in other districts across the region.
Chatelain started by recruiting a few food truck owners and other volunteers with skills in disaster feeding to prepare about 2,000 to 3,000 meals a day in a commercial kitchen. BREC allowed the group to use public parks for meal pick-up spots, where kids ages 18 and younger could receive a free meal.
With demand rising throughout the spring, Chatelain and her team leased a kitchen commissary at Celtic Media Centre and pulled in restaurant partners to prepare meals. Juban’s, Solera, Tramonte’s and City Group Hospitality were among the eateries that participated, creating simple, nutritious meals like red beans and rice, hamburgers and spaghetti and meatballs.
At its peak, the Three O’Clock project was serving 30,000 meals a day to children across East Baton Rouge, Assumption, Iberville, Ascension and parishes in the Acadiana region. The program employs dozens of industry workers to help assemble and transport the meals.
While the Three O’Clock project has stepped up in a big way during COVID-19, it’s been quietly working behind the scenes for more than three years to ensure low-income kids have access to after-school nutrition.
Chatelain founded the nonprofit when she realized local schoolchildren were missing out on a federal resource that could provide them an after-school snack or take-home dinner. Chatelain’s company, School Food and Wellness Group, consults with public schools on their cafeteria programs, helping them comply with federal rules set forth in the National School Lunch Program.
“We were working with East Baton Rouge Parish School System, and I noticed a lot of kids hanging around after school with nothing much to eat,” Chatelain recalls. “I knew there were opportunities for schools or nonprofits to apply for funds through the Child and Adult Care Food Program, so I started sharing this information with schools.”
But school administrators, especially those at low-income schools, are notoriously overworked and understaffed. They told Chatelain they didn’t have the bandwidth to take on a new federal program.
“So I figured, ‘Well, I have the expertise, why not just start a nonprofit and do it myself?’” recalls Chatelain, whose company works with schools nationwide.
By 2017, the Three O’Clock Project was fully operational. It has two staff members, and Chatelain serves as its volunteer founder and ongoing advisor.
Now with record-high unemployment due to the pandemic, south Louisiana families need this kind of support more than ever, especially since many summer programs, camps and other extracurriculars remain shuttered. Chatelain and her team are continuing to provide meal delivery to feeding sites through August, when the Three O’Clock Project will likely return to its normal operations.
“With so much pressure on low-income families,” she says, “this is one less thing they can worry about.”
For more information and for updated feeding site schedules, visit threeoclockproject.org.