Skip to Content

Three O’Clock Project has scaled up to feed 70,000+ children daily

By Olivia McClure
For the past three years, Emily Chatelain and her nonprofit have made sure at-risk kids in South Louisiana get the food they need whenever they’re not in school.

During the academic year, the Three O’Clock Project provides snacks and suppers to the youngsters who participate in any of about 50 enrichment programs after the final bell of the day rings—hence the organization’s name. In summers, the Baton Rouge-based project serves breakfasts and lunches, taking on a role fulfilled by school cafeterias most months of the year.

When concerns about the novel coronavirus forced schools to close their doors in March, summer, in many ways, came early. So did the food security troubles it brings for countless Louisiana residents.

Emily Chatelain, Three O’Clock Project
Emily Chatelain, Three O’Clock Project

“I would freak out as a parent if normally my kid eats lunch every day and I don’t have it in my budget,” Chatelain said. That’s a struggle many families face each summer anyway. The coronavirus pandemic has extended the time that they will have to get by without free and reduced-cost school meal programs. Worsening the financial strain is the fact that many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus-related business closures.

Chatelain knew she had to shift the Three O’Clock Project into summer gear early. She enlisted the help of local restaurants and quickly came up with a plan to cook and distribute food on a massive scale — one that continues to grow as more school district leaders and others look for ways to get food into the hands of kids under 18 who may not otherwise have it while coronavirus precautions keep them at home.

In Jefferson Parish, the nonprofit is working with the food providers that usually prepare school meals to distribute breakfasts and lunches at schools via a drive-up, grab-and-go system. Jefferson Parish and Baton Rouge-area families can pick up meals at stops along distribution routes that snake through several neighborhoods. And the organization is operating feeding sites in several parishes. Locations and times are announced on the Three O’Clock Project’s website and social media channels.

While the project is still making its usual meals that are meant to be eaten right away, it’s also ramping up production of frozen meals that can easily be packaged up and keep school-age kids fed for a while. That’s especially important in rural parishes, an increasing number of which have been reaching out to Chatelain for help. By late April, Three O’Clock was serving more than 50,000 meals daily across South Louisiana.

“We can make five days of frozen meals, put it in a pack and hand it to someone once a week,” Chatelain said. It makes things more convenient for parents and other caregivers who have limited transportation and time.

“It’s been incredible to use our nonprofit for such a greater good. I’m so happy that I started this three years ago and we had systems and processes in place so that when this crisis happened, we could quickly move.”
She is leasing a kitchen at Celtic Media Centre in Baton Rouge, where about 350 restaurant employees are being paid by the Three O’Clock Project — which receives federal funding as an afterschool and summer meal provider — to make a large portion of the meals.

“We were kind of handed this workforce of laid-off service workers who were looking for jobs,” she said.

The Baton Rouge food industry is helping in other ways, too. Food truck owners are using the vehicles to shuttle meals to recipients, for example. Several restaurants are using their own kitchens and workers to assemble meals that Three O’Clock Project staffers can then pick up and distribute on meal routes.

Leading the consortium of restaurants providing these meals is Stephen Hightower, managing partner with City Group Hospitality, which includes the City Pork, Rouj Creole and City Slice eateries.

The restaurants prepared 5,100 meals in their first week working with the Three O’Clock Project, Hightower said, and he expected that number to continue to increase. Through a separate initiative supported by Entergy, some of the same restaurants also are making meals to be delivered to health care professionals at local hospitals.

It’s important for restaurants to be part of the community’s response to the pandemic, Hightower said. Providing quality meals to those who need them is a meaningful contribution in a time of many unknowns.

He said it also has proved a “lifeline” for the local restaurant industry, which is struggling amid coronavirus-related restrictions that have resulted in decreased sales.

“It’s allowed us to keep people employed,” he said. In some cases, restaurants participating in the initiatives have even brought additional employees on board to keep up with demand.

There are intangible benefits, too.

“We all get the joy of being able to provide these meals,” Hightower said.

For Chatelain, stepping in to serve meals during coronavirus closures has brought a welcome boost in awareness for her organization.

Before the virus took hold in Louisiana, her attention had been devoted to expansion plans for the Three O’Clock Project. She launched the nonprofit after seeing the need for better child nutrition in her work as a consultant for about 300 school food programs across the U.S.

Students enrolled in afterschool programs often come from low-income households, she said.

“A lot of these kids either don’t have a meal to go home to, or it’s something that’s not healthy or nutritious,” she said. “They don’t eat until they come to school again the next day.”

Some nonprofits running afterschool tutoring and mentoring programs provide snacks — but because they tend to operate on tight budgets, Chatelain said, they have to choose inexpensive, unhealthy items.

“I decided we can do better,” Chatelain said. “I Googled ‘how to start a nonprofit’ — seriously — and just did it.”

In 2019, the Three O’Clock Project served 300,000 meals through partnerships with about 50 nonprofits in South Louisiana. Not only do kids get nutritious food, she said — the project’s involvement enables afterschool programs to put the money they previously spent on snacks toward other endeavors.

She hopes to expand the project into more communities in Louisiana and, eventually, California and other states. Feeding those in need during the coronavirus crisis is helping her forge connections that could translate to new meal distribution agreements for future school years and summer programs.

She’s also taking advantage of the opportunity to spread some cheer during a trying time. Staffers make sure they and their clients adhere to social distancing guidelines — but being out on the meal routes “gives everybody a reason to come out in the middle of the day and see some smiling faces and wave,” Chatelain said.

She said it’s a privilege to be able to offer some relief to families that are coping with a multitude of other worries right now.

“Food is one thing,” she said, “but these families are trying to figure out school and home learning and ‘I got laid off’ or ‘I have to go to work but I’ve got kids at home.’ It’s been incredible to use our nonprofit for such a greater good. I’m so happy that I started this three years ago and we had systems and processes in place so that when this crisis happened, we could quickly move.”