The air is full of anticipation on Granite Road, where during a hot day at noontime residents — mostly youths — are gathering along the street and in yards rather than taking refuge inside.
Soon the object of their excitement becomes clear, as a horn from a vehicle is heard blowing several times in the distance — a sound that seems familiar to the neighbors who immediately react. Its source, a Mount Airy Police Department SUV, then becomes visible and rounds a curve while headed toward a cul-de-sac where they’ve congregated.
It comes to a stop and several officers, including high-ranking members of the department, roll out of the SUV as if on a military mission and open its rear hatch to reveal several large containers. Soon they are surrounded by kids, to whom they hand out small white bags with food items and cartons of milk.
Another successful day for the summer feeding program operated through Mount Airy City Schools.
“Oh, it’s a big deal for the kids — they look forward to it every day,” Destiny Pruitt, a mother of two, said in surveying the scene while standing outside her front door. “They just love running out there together.”
On this particular day, Tuesday, the arrival of food — including a sandwich, chips, apple and milk — is made a little more special due to the involvement by city police. They deliver between 100 and 120 meals each Tuesday in the four local housing authority neighborhoods.
After doling out the items, the police don’t just rush off to the next stop. They instead spend time talking to the kids, who seem to appreciate the friendly interaction with the men behind the badges they have grown to know this summer.
Pruitt confirms what an observer already has suspected about the delivery to the neighborhood: it’s about more than food. She says that while her family is not starving, the food her children receive is appreciated, yet the fun and camaraderie involved in the police visits are just as wholesome.
And the same goes for the police, who also look forward to each Tuesday.
“It’s heartfelt to be able to see them in this way,” Chief Dale Watson said of the opportunity to meet with local youths in a positive manner, which the feeding program affords. “It’s great to see them in this capacity.”
The officers who participate — which this past Tuesday also included Capt. Alan Freeman and three members of the city community policing unit, Garrett Chamberlain, Gerald Daniel and James Simmons — also benefit from the spirit of giving, Watson said.
“It’s just a great feeling — there is a lot of need in our community.”
U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that nearly one in four Mount Airy residents — 22.5 percent — live in poverty, compared to 14.8 percent nationwide.
Thanks to the federally funded effort in Mount Airy provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the threat of hunger is reduced during the summertime when children lack access to free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts offered when schools are in session.
The nine-week summer feeding program coordinated by the city schools’ child nutrition program, began on June 20 and ends on Aug. 19. The program offers breakfast, lunch and snacks, with the lunch segment the most popular.
Figures for the first six weeks of the summer program include 2,088 total breakfasts, 12,156 lunches and 6,288 snacks.
It targets children 18 and younger at local public-housing neighborhoods, camps, child-care facilities and others, according to Celena Watson, child nutrition director for Mount Airy schools
“On average we serve about 500 meals a day,” Watson added. “Some days we have served 600-plus, and some weeks are less.”
The numbers vary each day depending on which camps are participating, with some nine weeks long and others only one- or two-week camp programs.
“We are serving about 20 different sites,” Watson mentioned. These include two Reeves Community locations, the Mount Airy Public Library, Surry Arts Council, Rainbow Child Care (two sites), Magical Moments, Jones Family Resource Center, all four city schools and their various academic, arts and athletic camps.
In addition to different kinds of sandwiches, the food can include pizza, chicken, hot dogs, vegetables, fruit and others.
The program is based at Jones Intermediate School, where the free meals are served. While in some cases recipients come to the school, the food must be delivered to the public housing neighborhoods.
“They’re limited on transportation options,” Watson explained.
The program is aided in that regard by volunteers who offer their time and vehicles to pick up food at Jones Intermediate and get it on site. In addition to the Mount Airy Police Department the city fire department assists with this task, with Watson citing other helpers, some involved with cooking meals.
Key volunteers include Ellen Welch, Deborah Stafford, Amy Heath, Ben Heath, Sam Eberdt, Karen Eberdt, Diane Johnson, Steven Johnson, Anita Ramirez, Hernan Ramirez, Kassidy Dollyhite, Kelsey Kelley, Liani Ramirez, Mason Hill, Becky Kipreas, Shirley Welch, Kandice Norman, Nia Ramirez and Greg Galyean.
The two latter individuals work with the local eLink program.
Along with school personnel, the volunteer ranks include parents of students.
“Some parents will bring their kids and they help, too,” the nutrition director said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.