Thousands of Louisiana youngsters can thank Emily Chatelain that they aren't going hungry.
Chatelain started the Three O’Clock Project four years ago to make sure youngsters in need would have supper. Now she's taken it to the next level, feeding kids across south Louisiana during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a known fact that when kids leave school, a lot of them, that would be the last meal they would get for the day,” said Cheryl Ford, of the Martin Luther King Center in Baton Rouge’s Eden Park neighborhood. “But the Three O’Clock Project provides meals to the children who otherwise wouldn’t eat after school.”
When the pandemic closed schools, the nonprofit organization stepped up to make sure students are still getting food.
"So many families don't know what's next, and now they're in a position where this is something they can depend on and it's one less thing for them to worry about at home," said Chatelain.
The 33-year-old got into business of feeding students as the owner School Food and Wellness Group, a Baton-Rouge based consulting company that makes sure school breakfast and lunch programs meet proper nutrition standards and that their governmental reports and finances are in order.
Chatelain said she knew there was a federally funded program that would also provide food for after-school programs, but when she asked schools about it, they said the personnel and paperwork issues were more than they wanted to take on.
“I kept getting that kind of pushback from schools not to join the supper program and provide this additional third meal,” Chatelain said. “Yet, I knew those kids would really benefit from it, because a lot of them go home and they don’t have a meal, or they have a meal but there’s nothing healthy.”
That’s when Chatelain founded the Three O’Clock Project.
The nonprofit organization took on the administrative headaches and provided the meals at no cost to the schools. She contracted with companies that delivered after-school meals and snacks to the after-school program sites.
The project started in Baton Rouge but quickly spread throughout south Louisiana during the school year and summer enrichment programs for children from low-income families. Like the after-school program, the summer meals are federally funded and administered through state government. Last summer, it provided about 30,000 meals per day, Chatelain said.
When COVID-19 shut down schools in mid-March, that complicated matters. Schools had been the gathering points for students to pick up the meals. Summer enrichment camps also could not open, so, again no delivery spots.
The Three O’Clock Project partnered with BREC, churches and community organizations to find places where meals could be picked up. The Louisiana Department of Education waived its rules that usually require programs to be offered for such meals to receive funding, Chatelain said.
Then the Three O’Clock Project set up its own kitchen at Celtic Studios.
“Up until this summer, we’ve contracted everything out,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to do your own kitchen if you don’t have the volume.”
Now the volume is there.
Chatelain said the organization has delivered over a million meals to sites for children or guardians to pick them up. The effort began in north Baton Rouge and has spread from there.
Each meal includes a protein, vegetable, fruit, grain and milk, Chatelain said.
“They’re very consistent with the deliveries,” said Ford, of the MLK Center. “The food that they send is fresh, and they make sure that the kids have enough to satisfy them.”
About 100 people are involved in cooking, packaging, delivering and distributing meals in East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Ascension, Assumption, Iberville, Jefferson, St, Landry, St. Martin, Vermilion, Acadia, Iberia and Lafayette parishes, Chatelain said.
That's another benefit of the project.
"You're not only feeding kids that need it, that can't go get their meals from school anymore, but you're also employing so many people that got put out of work that were in the service industry," said Joshua Mayeux, who is in charge of making sure the meals get delivered. "So it helps out on a lot of levels."
The uncertainty of when and how schools will reopen complicates Chatelain’s planning for the summer. The waiver that allows take-home meals at sites without educational programs runs through Aug. 31, although she expects it will be extended.
Chatelain, who has lived in Denver since 2017 but maintains her Baton Rouge consulting business, said the Three O’Clock Project won’t stop.
“We just don’t know what schools will be doing in the fall, if there will still be remote learning, if there will still be this need for grab-and-go meals or if they will open and have kids come and eat,” she said. “It is definitely an unknown, but we will be prepared to go as long as we can as long as we need.”