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Georgia Mountain Food Bank applauds UNG's commitment to feed children

Dr. Bonita Jacobs, president of the University of North Georgia (UNG), is pictured with Tony Hernden and Kay Blackstock, executive director of Georgia Mountain Food Bank (GMFB), during the annual Empty Bowl Lunch at First Baptist Church in Gainesville. Hernden bid and won the UNG bowl during the auction, which raises money for the food bank.

Feeding nutritious lunches to hungry children in the summer was a task Georgia Mountain Food Bank (GMFB) Executive Director Kay Blackstock always wanted to tackle.

"It was a task that was bigger than we could do on our own," Blackstock said.

Then she met Pamela Elfenbein, a professor of human services and sociology at the University of North Georgia (UNG). That changed everything.

"I knew the day I met her, if she wanted to get something done, it would get done," Blackstock said.

Together the women forged a partnership between GMFB and UNG to launch the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) in Gainesville, Georgia. This collaboration as well as UNG's expansion of the program was recognized at GMFB's annual Empty Bowl Lunch on Sept. 26 at First Baptist Church in Gainesville.

In the initial partnership, GMFB was the vendor, providing the food for meals. UNG acted as the administrator, handling the meal site supervision and managing UNG students, who were site supervisors and monitors that are federally required. The federal and state program coordinated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture ensures low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session.

Blackstock said UNG's contribution of feeding children who are food insecure was recognized at the Empty Bowl Lunch with a video presentation at the beginning of the lunch fundraiser.

"If it doesn't bring a tear to your eye … something is wrong," she said.

Featured in the video are Dr. Bonita Jacobs, UNG president; Dr. Richard Oates, UNG Gainesville Campus vice president; and Dr. Andy Novobilski, UNG associate provost and chief research officer.

Elementary school students who participated in the 21 feeding sites across Forsyth, Gwinnett, Hall, Lumpkin and Oconee counties and the UNG students who worked with them were also part of the video. The students, who were in UNG’s Human Services Delivery and Administration (HSDA) program, gain access to career-related experience outside of the classroom.

Blackstock credits Elfenbein with the program's evolution from serving 2,000 meals in 2012 to 30,000 meals last year.

"It was really Pamela's leadership that solidified the program," Blackstock said. "She brought in all these other people and it grew."

The others include the Forsyth County Schools and Cumming First United Methodist Church. Elfenbein said Forsyth County joined the partnership following her visit to Cumming Elementary School, where 65.85 percent of students qualify for nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches.

"The principal of the school was overwhelmed," Elfenbein said. "She said 'We really need that here. Please come here and serve us.'"

Forsyth County Schools pitched in, becoming the new food provider. This single change allowed GMFB to switch gears and act as a supplemental force.

"It also allowed us to do mobile pantries around the feeding sites," Blackstock said.

Elfenbein said Forsyth Schools even provided a bus to help deliver goods to a trailer park, apartment complex and cul-de-sac community.

Other organizations such as Legacy Link-Area Agency on Aging, the United Way of Hall County, Georgia Department of Early Care & Learning and Georgia Department of Education have also joined the partnership. But Elfenbein said Blackstock's vision is what started it all.

"If it wasn't for Kay serving people in need, this program never would have happened," Elfenbein said.

The summer feeding program, however, was not the only program receiving praise from GMFB. Getting a moment in the spotlight was the UNG food pantries. Dr. Carly Redding, an assistant professor in sociology and human services, helped launched the first one on the Gainesville Campus. Rosann Kent, director of the Appalachian Studies Center, oversees the second pantry on the Dahlonega Campus.

"UNG is again in another leadership role with that spark of leading other campuses to think about the same path," Blackstock said.

To find a summer feeding program location, visit the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning website.

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