As we barbecue our way through the long days of summer, it’s easy to forget that thousands of children across North Carolina have too little to eat.
Hunger translates into significant mental and physical health issues, including reduced concentration, increased illness, obesity (from eating unhealthy foods) and impaired performance overall. And a 2011 study by the Food Research and Action Center shows that more than one in four young people in NC do not get sufficient food – making us the 11th highest state in the country for “food insecurity.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
More than 611,000 students in North Carolina currently qualify (based on family income) for free or reduced-price lunches at school through a federal program designed to ensure low-income kids receive nutritious meals.
This program sounds good in theory. But in practice less than half the kids who qualify for school breakfast actually receive it – and only 79,000 participate in the summer meals program (less than 12 percent). Additionally, the state missed out on $27 million in additional federal funds set aside for school breakfast and summer meals because we didn’t have sufficient programs in place or not enough children were fed to request the funding.
The federal program is falling short for several reasons. Among the barriers are the burden of paperwork and transportation of both food and children. Families also don’t know where they can go to get meals, a problem often exacerbated by language barriers. And for summer meals, the main problem is access – getting food to the kids and kids to the food when school is out.
Solving these challenges is where the No Kid Hungry campaign comes in. Started by national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, No Kid Hungry partners with states to get children the food they need.
‘Islands of goodness’
Last year, Gov. Bev Perdue partnered with Share our Strength, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and the N.C. Department for Health and Human Services to launch No Kid Hungry North Carolina.
Under the umbrella of nonprofit NC Serves (of which Christopher is a board member), the North Carolina campaign is focused on three objectives: increasing access to nutritious meals through partnerships with existing organizations, strengthening community infrastructure and systems for getting healthy meals to children, and improving families’ knowledge of available programs.
As Tamara Baker, No Kid Hungry NC’s program manager, explains, “There is great work happening, but there are islands of goodness. No Kid Hungry is a highly collaborative effort designed to generate awareness of the need, connect organizations with one another and best practices nationally, and help get more food to families where and when they need it.”
Over the school year, 52 schools across the state participated in a No Kid Hungry NC pilot program to expand school breakfast participation. Recognizing that children weren’t getting breakfast because many weren’t able to get to school early enough and because there was a stigma associated with free breakfast (since it has traditionally been for low-income kids), schools were encouraged to incorporate breakfast into instructional time and allow any hungry kid (regardless of income) to grab a breakfast bag and head to class. Consequently, many schools are now serving breakfast in the classroom instead of the cafeteria.
As kids ate breakfast, creativity flourished. A teacher from one elementary school, for instance, played and taught about jazz music. Another talked about current events sparked by watching a few minutes of CNN. The creativity is working. Schools that became No Kid Hungry NC pilots last fall showed an average of 78 percent of kids eating breakfast – about a 30 percent increase over the statewide average.
This summer, 12 school districts with high need and/or large military populations are participating in a summer pilot program to increase awareness and access to summer meals. No Kid Hungry NC provided small grants and assistance with site recruitment, and tailored marketing and bilingual outreach materials.
Again, innovative practices are emerging. Any parent or guardian who wants healthy summer meals for their children can go to nc.nokidhungry.org or text FoodNC to 877-877. After an address is provided, a list of nearby participating meal sites is sent back.
To increase accessibility, No Kid Hungry is also partnering with food banks, nonprofit agencies and faith-based organizations to distribute food where the kids are. Nonprofit Kicking4Hunger is also holding free soccer camps in five participating school districts. The combined efforts are contributing to an increase of 340 new sites where kids ages 18 and younger can get a free, nutritious summer meal (a significant increase from last year).
These are positive signs of progress, but the challenge is huge. There is no reason kids in our state should go hungry, yet they are. We can and should be working together to solve this problem.
Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.