CLAYTON — If 70 students at Cooper Elementary don't receive backpacks filled with food each weekend, they risk going hungry between lunch on Friday and breakfast on Monday in the school cafeteria.
That's the number of students receiving food from the Backpack Buddies program - an Inter-Faith Food Shuttle program providing food-insecure children with weekend meals. That figure is up from last year, along with the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Cooper Elementary saw a 4.5 percent increase this year, bringing the total to 55.6 percent of the student population.
"I think this is a bigger increase than in the past," said Cooper principal Maureen Hanahue.
According to a report released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate in Johnston County, has increased between 2007 and 2010 - especially for children older than five.
In North Carolina, 17.4 percent of the population lives in poverty, two percentage points higher than the rest of the country.
The overall poverty rate in Johnston County leaped to 16.1 percent from 12.5 percent in 2007. Among school-age children, 20.5 percent were considered poor in 2010 - up from 14.9 percent in 2007.
Hanahue said the school has tried to reach out even more knowing that the economy has hurt so many students' families.
"We know our families are experiencing these hardships," Hanahue said. "We're trying to reach out and let them know of services that we have available right here at our school."
But many families, she said, won't take advantage of the Backpack Buddies program, the angel tree, the clothes drive, or the backpacks full of school supplies donated at the beginning of the year.
"We have a lot of families that have pride issues, and they don't want to do that," Hanahue said. Some families who might need the help aren't signing up to receive it. Even some children, Hanahue said, are too proud to ask for help.
Cooper teachers have their eyes open these days and try to match students with any services that they can.
"They are truly in tune with their children's needs, and if they see an issue going on, they call a parent or get our guidance counselor or social worker involved," Hanahue said.
According to statistics from the Johnston County Department of Social Services, crisis visits and food-stamp participation has shot up since 2007.
"It's unbelievable how many people are coming through our crisis unit every day," said DSS director Earl Marett.
Last week, Marett and his staff were busy helping people pay their utility bills as the winter weather began rolling in.
In November 2007, Johnston County DSS spent $25,422 in Crisis Intervention Program funds, a federally funded program to help eligible families pay emergency heating and cooling bills.
This November, DSS paid out $153,226.
Crisis needs soar
Food stamps went up from an expenditure of $1.4 million in December 2007 to $3.2 million in December 2010.
Marett said a large number of the crisis cases he sees are coming out of jobs in the construction industry, which was booming before the recession.
"I think a lot of people were working in industries here in the county that were hit pretty hard. Like construction, we were just having so much growth in that field, so many people working in it. It's virtually stopped now I think," Marett said.
Hanahue said she doesn't hear about changing employment situations among families that attend Cooper, but she said they do see families moving in together to save money.
"Our families are very resourceful. They really bond together and help each other. In fact, actually that helps a lot (academically) to reduce the stress," Hanahue said.
She stresses that even though times have been tough, the school has the resources and the community support to get through it.
Community helps out
Local businesses, including Caterpillar and Coca-Cola, have sponsored the school's Angel Tree, which had wish lists for 128 children this year. That's approximately 23 percent of the school population.
Individuals, clubs and businesses have also been donating throughout the year, from clothing to school supplies and field trip money. Hanahue said most donors aren't even asked to contribute.
As for students taking advantage of free and reduced lunch, Hanahue said she's not sure it's all about sudden dips in income.
Across Clayton schools, free and reduced lunch numbers have risen, and Hanahue said she thinks it's partly due to the district doing a better job of communicating eligibility.
"Our child nutrition office for Johnston County has really pushed forth to really look at the income guidelines. You may qualify and not even really realize it," Hanahue said.
As for next year, if the percentage of children in need rises again, Hanahue said she only hopes the same generosity will be there.