Chef Ryan Romaine fires up his ovens at 4 a.m. On the menu for lunch is chicken Parmesan rotini pasta, corn, wheat roll and milk or juice.

Today, he will feed 3,900 kids.

As summer vacation brings an end to the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch program at schools in the Greater New Orleans area, thousands of children are without regular hot meals. Second Harvest steps in with an initiative that aims to serve 175,000 meals to children in 60 participating program sites across the city.

The largest summer feeding program in the state, the Community Kitchen serves summer camp programs in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. John parishes and a satellite location in Iberia Parish. Six weeks into the nine-week program, Second Harvest had already served between 165,000 and 170,000 meals.

“One out of six people in Louisiana is at risk for hunger, one out of four live in poverty, and we have one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country,” said Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank. “We try to ensure as many of the children in our community who are at risk for hunger receive hot, nutritious meals.”

According to Feeding America’s 2014 Map the Meal Gap findings, child food insecurity continues to rise in Louisiana. Twenty-one percent or 126,750 children in south Louisiana are food insecure, which means one in five children in south Louisiana are not sure where their next meal might come from.

As the Community Kitchen chef for Second Harvest, Romaine and his crew also prepare a separate sandwich option to accommodate summer program field trips.

“Wherever the kid goes, the meal goes,” Romaine explains, emphasizing the kitchen’s commitment to providing food security to kids who might otherwise go without.

Nearing the end of its fifth year of operating the summer feeding program, Second Harvest hired 17 AmeriCorps VISTA Summer Associates, four food service workers from area schools and recruited support from its core group of Community Kitchen volunteers to help prepare, plate and deliver breakfast and lunch to the sites, with shifts beginning as early as 5:30 a.m.

“When we don’t have enough volunteers, the staff comes in,” community volunteer Dale Dunlap said. “We make sure the kids get their meals.”

Chef Romaine decided to mix up the meal options, and children were given little comment cards. The cards came back, many with a detailed response.

“The kids run the show,” Community Kitchen programs coordinator Tanya O’Reilly said. She got a lot of comments about tuna casserole.

O’Reilly said tilapia replaced tuna and the children have been introduced to foods they’ve never had before, such as broccoli or sweet potatoes. Some of the children have reported going home and telling their parents about the healthy options they like, a positive bonus to the program.

Still, it’s the tried and true childhood favorites that win kids over.

“Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken Parmesan, the kids like that Italian stuff,” Romaine said. “We ask them for their feedback, and we try hard to make the meals colorful and fun.”

The Summer Feeding program has grown, in part, due to continued support from ConAgra Feeding Children Better Foundation and the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. Relationships with the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services and the state Department of Education ensure the long-term sustainability of Second Harvest’s Summer Feeding program.

In the fall, after school resumes, Second Harvest Food Bank will once again provide programs such as Kids Cafe and the Backpack Program, and will introduce a new school mobile pantry program. Using a combination of child hunger programs across south Louisiana will help in the daily fight to end hunger in south Louisiana.

“Every year, we grow,” said Gina Melita, director of the Community Kitchen. “It’s wonderful, but it’s a shame. The need isn’t decreasing, but our reach is expanding. Our mission is to end hunger in south Louisiana.”

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