Building Relationships One Meal at a Time in Florida

Hunger in West Palm Beach, Fla., like in many of our communities, is real.

Tina Harker

Tina Harker, cafeteria manager at Northmore Elementary, has witnessed the struggles of families in her community in putting food on the table. She remembers one little kid in particular.

“He lashes out and is emotional… and sometimes you notice how he’s eating. He eats like he hasn’t eaten in days,” she shared. “Unfortunately, a lot of the kids, they'll eat on a Friday and they won't eat again until Monday when they come back [to school].”

“It's very sad. It's just sad,” she added. “Sometimes you have to see it and be part of it to understand what's really going on around us.”

Even with these challenges, Harker described West Palm Beach as a community where “everybody comes together as family to make sure that everybody is taken care of.” Teachers, principals and parents are committed to ensuring kids have all the meals they need to thrive.

Northmore Elementary offers breakfast, lunch, supper and snacks and participates in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, where kids receive a snack pack of fruits or veggies three times a week. Additionally when school closed for breaks, the district offered meals for families to take home. During Christmas break they sent kids home with enough food for thirteen days. “They are humongous,” Harker explained, describing the size of the boxes that went home with the kids.

It’s a lot of work, but Harker and her team continue to do it in spite of the challenges of the last two years.

“Most of us are moms and grandmas,” she said. “We can't imagine having kids at home hungry and not having anything to eat.”

The district's ability to offer these holiday and school break distributions and free meals to all students will no longer be able to be continued next year as Congress has not approved legislation extending the waivers that allowed them to do so.

Harker sees the kids in school as her own. For her, the cafeteria is a place where they can feel loved and seen. Her staff knows the names of kids, they greet them every day when they come to school and do special celebrations for birthdays and other occasions. Kids trust Harker and her team.

She mentioned the story of a boy who was having a difficult day.

“As soon as I saw him, I knew something was wrong,” she said. Harker invited him to the cafeteria to talk, and he confided in her some challenges that were going on at home and how much he missed his mother. Harker was able to connect him to the counselor for support.

The welcoming environment in the cafeteria and the meals have been transformative for some kids. Harker also shared the story of little Rachel, a third grade Spanish-speaking girl who was very timid and kept her head down at lunch. The cafeteria staff has helped her feel comfortable. She now interacts with other students and is even eager to practice her English when asking for food.

With funding from No Kid Hungry, Northmore Elementary and other schools in the Palm Beach County School District will purchase essential equipment that will help them serve the meals kids need to thrive.

The kids continue expressing their gratitude to Harker and  everybody who has made their meals possible. They have filled her office wall with drawings and notes, and love running into her on the beach. 

Drawing from kid
Drawing from kid 2

“When you can come to a community like this and just see the smile on their faces or the appreciation when you give them food or the boxes during spring break or Christmas break, it makes you feel good. It's sad, but it also makes you feel good because at least for that day or week that they're taken care of,” Harker explained.

You too can make a difference in the lives of kids in your community. Join us to ensure that kids have access to the three meals they need 365 days a year.