Woman who has led Carter summer feeding program says this may be the most difficult in 18 years

John Thompson • Updated May 29, 2020 at 10:31 PM

ELIZABETHTON — For the 18th year in a row, the TLC Community Center will provide meals to boys and girls in need during the summer months.

And Angie Odom, founder and director of the center, said this could be the most difficult of those years.

“A lot of people tell me they think this should be an easy year this year because the school systems are providing food this year because of COVID-19,” Odom said.

The unique challenges and requirements implemented to contain the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) are creating uncertain and unique challenges for a program which had been operated smoothly for nearly two decades.

The summer feeding program began when Odom realized that many of the clients of her women’s assistance program faced an annual crisis every summer.

She said many of her clients were mothers heading poverty-stricken families. Their children relied on the school lunch program for many of the meals during the school year.

And from late May until early August, these meals were not provided.

With the help of generous donors and hard-working volunteers, Odom’s organization was able to provide three meals a day to children in need for the entire summer for 18 straight years.

This year, the unexpected happened when schools closed early because of the pandemic. Many school systems followed Odom’s example and began providing free school meals to children.

Odom appreciated the effort of the Carter County School System and the Elizabethton City School System to provide the meals, but she said they did not go far enough. These systems were distributing the food in the parking lots of schools. She said many of the children lived miles from the schools and had no access to transportation. She said other school systems in the region were delivering the meals directly to the children by school bus.

The school nutrition program could not make delivery to every student in need, said Carter County Director of Schools Kevin Ward. He said the school cooks and staff were already working a long, hard day.

Because there were children who could not get to the location where the food was being distributed, Odom began her feeding program early this year. Thanks to the school nutrition program, there was already food to distribute.

Unlike past years, when the food was simply brought to various neighborhoods, where the children gathered to receive the food, there was an entirely different process this year.

In the past years, the food had been paid for by private individuals and groups. There was no need to document who received it. The children were simply handed the food boxes and did not have to sign for anything.

That changed when the program started distributing food provided by the schools. That food had been bought with tax money and had to be documented. That meant there had to be documentation.

But Odom said the biggest thing taking time was the need to maintain social distancing. In the old days, the children had been able to gather together as the food was being distributed, standing in line and even forming a circle for a prayer of thanks at each stop.

Social distancing eliminated that, as the food had to be distributed to each family. What had taken just a few minutes to distribute to a whole neighborhood now took a much longer time.

Despite the number of children receiving food at the schools, Odom’s group also seems to be distributing to more children this year. She said about 500 children are receiving the food. Last year, it was about 400.

Odom said another impact of COVID-19 is that TLC cannot use its commercial kitchen because of the more detailed requirements of the Center for Disease Control. For that reason, the distribution is mostly of cans and boxes of food that is ready to warm and eat, not the food that has to be prepared before being distributed, such as the always popular spaghetti.

One thing the kitchen could use is more refrigerators or freezers.

The program can be issued milk from Second Harvest this year, but to meet the demand, they need more refrigeration. Anyone who would like to donate to that cause can call Odom at 423-895-8601.