MURRAY – Although this is the fourth year Murray’s Soup for the Soul has had a summer lunch program, it has been more vital than ever this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the two local school districts continued providing lunches as children were undergoing non-traditional instruction (NTI) at home, the districts have not been able to provide meals this summer. Soup for the Soul has done its best to step up and fill that void with its Summer Lunch & Literacy Program, its leadership says.
Soup for the Soul founder Debbie Smith said the children and families have been very appreciative, not only for the meals, but for the books that are being given to them through the program as well. She said Soup for the Soul wanted to protect kids against the so-called “summer slide” – the learning deficit that can result when children have been out of school all summer without any academic-related activities.
“When there are multiple children in the same family, they will rotate the books,” Smith said. “One of our stops has eight children, and they’ll read each other’s books, and they tell me how appreciative they are of having those books.”
Soup for the Soul Board Director Noraa Ransey said the program has practically doubled every year since it started.
“This year, we put a cap of 250 on it when we were planning and writing grants, but as soon as the pandemic hit, we decided that we would not say no to anybody,” Ransey said. “In the past, we had everything planned and everything ready to go by April, but as the board chair, I did not think that was responsible. I was watching the schools and watching the regulations coming down from the government, and I never said we weren’t going to do it; just that it had to look different.
“I remember it being about two weeks before school was going to let out and (Program Manager Olivia Roberson) and I just looked at each other (knowing what was coming). We’ve always had all the food ordered and packed and the volunteers in place, and I said, ‘Olivia, we’re going to do this.’ As soon as we heard the schools were definitely not serving food this summer and the parks were going to stay closed down (until June), we knew we had to. So we had to get creative.”
Ransey said a small crew is packing the meals and the deliveries are looking different this year since the volunteers are limiting contact and not spending time talking to the families a lot like they used to. The types of food have been different as well, she said.
“This year, we tried something different and we’re bringing them an actual meal,” she said. “In the past, we’ve brought them two snack bags, which was about six meals and we went twice a week. This time, we’re going once a week to avoid too much contact, and we are still bringing them the one bag of snack packs, but then a family bag with an actual complete meal they can cook as a family.”
The organization has not been accepting donations of food items as it has in the past out of safety concerns, but people have been able to donate food through Amazon.
“That’s of course more pricey, but people have still been giving regularly,” Ransey said. “Some of the companies that we would (normally) reach out to for donations, we really didn’t ask anybody because we know that they’re struggling themselves. But still, banks and churches (have donated), and even a 6 or 7-year-old (Logan Holland) put up a lemonade stand because he wanted to sponsor poor kids, and he raised $400 selling lemonade. This is our fourth year doing this and it costs $100 to feed a kid through the summer, with enough meals for 10 weeks.”
Ransey said Soup for the Soul tries to get its story out to the public and it appears to have paid off, adding that one donation came from a woman in Clarksville, Tennessee whom no one with the organization knew. She said the books have been paid for through contributions from Elm Grove Baptist Church, the Calloway County Education Association, both school districts’ family resource centers and an early literacy grant from Calloway County Schools. Anyone from 0-18 is included, Ransey said.
“We are adding kids to the program every day,” Smith said. “I just met a lady (last week) and we added three more. We’re happy to be able to add children as needed and not say no. We’ve gotten our donations and we haven’t had to tell anyone, ‘No, we can’t feed your child this summer.’ It’s a real blessing.”
Soup for the Soul Program Manager Roberson could not be reached for comment before deadline.