“Kids should just be able to be kids,” says Dana Michell, a Three O’Clock Project board member. “They shouldn’t have to carry the burden of hunger. It’s truly heartbreaking that so many do, but it feels good to be able to provide something to help these kids.” Photos courtesy Emily Chatelain.

Giving back: Three O’Clock Project

At each meal, Emily Chatelain places a colorful spread of fruits and vegetables in front of her son Bennett. The scene is familiar for the pair, as Chatelain has worked to fill Bennett’s diet with all the fresh ingredients integral to a healthy diet since he started eating solids.

“Getting a 4½-year-old to eat things like fruits and vegetables is a constant struggle,” says Chatelain, who specializes in education reform and nutrition programs in schools across the country. “We talk about different foods and read books about them to get him excited. And I never serve him just one thing. I want him to get a taste of everything.”

In the same way, Chatelain has also been working to broaden the palates of children across Louisiana by providing diverse and nutritious meals to those who would otherwise go without.

“In 2012, I started working with charter schools on the business side of things,” explains Chatelain, who got her undergraduate degree in biology from LSU before moving on to UNO for her MBA. “Ninety percent of the students were receiving free and reduced meals, and many were relying solely on the school for food. My eyes were opened to the harsh reality that not all children have access to healthy food.”

Emily Chatelain (left) joins forces with healthy food vendors and employees to provide kids with nutritious and balanced meals and snacks.

Motivated to make a change, in 2016, Chatelain joined forces with a few friends to extend meals beyond school hours through a new organization called the Three O’Clock Project. A sponsor of after-school and summer programs under the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, Chatelain’s nonprofit initiative is aimed at connecting vendors with local programs to supply kids with healthy options.

“I noticed a need after the school bell rang,” says Chatelain. “Some after-school programs either didn’t have snacks or had unhealthy ones. I wanted to try to provide food for these organizations so the kids would have something to hold them through the evening.”

Starting meal services officially in 2017, the Three O’Clock project now serves about 25,000 meals a month to more than 3,000 kids in 30 nonprofit after-school programs, including Kids’ Orchestra, Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA, with even more outreach in the summer when food insecurity is high. And while expansion is one of the group’s main goals, Chatelain says the organization’s impact goes far beyond the cafeteria.

“I was in a school once and the kids had no idea what a blueberry was,” recalls Chatelain. “I was shocked. I realized that some of these kids don’t know what healthy looks like because they aren’t seeing it in their homes and they aren’t learning it at school.”

By providing healthy alternatives to kids, Chatelain is hoping to educate through the introduction of new and nutritious foods. She is also working with her board members to create lesson plans and other resources like kid-friendly cookbooks to help teachers and students get involved and become more active in making a healthy lifestyle the standard.

“It’s sad that health education often gets put on the back burner,” says Chatelain. “These skills are building blocks, and I think they are just as important as test scores.”

As Chatelain notes, participation by the community is vital in making these goals become reality, as is the case with all nonprofits. The Three O’Clock Project aims to mobilize people against the hunger epidemic by spreading the word about the kids and families it is directly affecting.

“I’ve heard that it takes 10 times of a child trying something new before they start to like it,” explains Chatelain. “A lot of families can’t afford to take the chance that their child won’t eat something after they spend money on it. What I want to do is give these kids good and equal access to healthy food. Every child deserves that.”