Young St. Louisan feeds children, shows what community looks like
It's one of the hottest days of summer and Rodney McGruder Brown is loading 32 paper lunch bags into a friend's car in the Tower Grove area. Each bag contains one of the many turkey, bacon, lettuce and blue cheese sandwiches he spent the morning assembling. Water, juice boxes and zip-close bags full of fresh strawberries and grapes go in alongside the sandwiches.
On the other side of town, 17-year-old Mya Petty and a crew of children have set up a folding table at Hickey Park in the Baden neighborhood. They drape a checkered cloth over it and tape up a colorful sign advertising free food for kids who otherwise might not have much to eat during the summer.
"A lot of times kids in our country go to school to eat," said Brown, 26, who works with children as a teaching assistant. "When school is out they don't have that meal ... so we like to come into the community and fill that void."
Petty and Brown rely on each other as well as a rotating cast of volunteers to help them get together the 25 to 30 lunches they hand out each day. Petty, who lives less than a block from the park, kicked off the summer initiative last month to serve anyone under the age of 16.
Each day, neighborhood children start to gather around noon to help set up. They also make sure to provide constant feedback on the menu. And if they clean up after themselves and try new foods — like hummus and blue cheese — they occasionally get chicken wings and pizza.
Those who know Petty wouldn't be surprised the teen is spending her summer making sure her youngest neighbors are well-fed. She became involved in community activism two years ago, after the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson. And she is quick to cite her admiration for the Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast for Children Program in the late 1960s.
"Just loving your community is activism," she said.
Petty first passed out lunches last summer through a similar summer program run by Operation Help or Hush, one of many advocacy groups that emerged after the Ferguson protests. But this year, she is running STL Lunch entirely on her own.
A food donation from the nearby Urban League jump-started the first week. After that, Petty pooled her resources to make sure lunches are available every Monday through Friday from noon to 1 p.m. Everything is made possible through online donations and in-person contributions.
"It’s been a community thing," she said. Earlier in the summer, Petty's brother helped her put together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at her house down the street. Now, Brown assembles the lunches in his home's spacious kitchen — often with the help of friends and roommates — and drives them over.
"That's what STL Lunch is about," Brown said. "It doesn’t take a huge organization to come in and make things change. It’s about everyone coming in and doing a little bit and making it work.”
The pair often gets asked who they're working for, added Petty. "I'm like, 'It's just us.' They're like, 'No, who y'all working for?' It's just us."
Some might question why a rising high school senior is spending her summer working to help kids who should have other options available, since both the city and county run summer lunch programs.
But Hickey Park is at the southern end of a 2- by 4-mile gap in government-funded lunch program coverage. The area might seem small, but if you’re a hungry person under 18 without regular access to a car or public transit in the summer heat, four miles might as well be the other side of the world. Although there are several programs in surrounding areas, Petty noticed the need in her immediate community.
"I live here," she said, standing in the grass while children squirted water at each other and squealed with delight. "I see the kids every day, I know the kids outside of the program."
Others, she said, might see the children running around the park as bad or unruly. But they listen to her.
"All of them respect me," she said. "They listen to me because I’m providing for them and I’m loving them and I sit down and I talk to them. They will listen and love you if you listen and love them.”