A rowdy chorus of “Nachos!” rose from the floor of the Hargraves Center last week as community members celebrated an eight-week program serving summer lunches to children in need.
The response was less enthusiastic when Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger mentioned there were free books, too, and asked the children if they like to read.
The Food for the Summer Partnership, an initiative Hemminger launched last fall, has united nonprofits, volunteers and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ food service provider Chartwells to serve up to 1,600 children this summer.
There were 20 sites last year where qualified children could get free weekday lunches, said Tamara Baker, No Kid Hungry NC program manager. Food for the Summer could serve 40 sites by the end of this summer, she said; a dozen are serving anyone 17 and younger who shows up.
No Kid Hungry NC works with school districts to increase participation in school breakfast and summer meal programs. About 30 percent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s 12,272 students receive free and reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program.
Changes to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could raise that number this fall, said Ashton Chatham Tippins, executive director of TABLE. The group provides local low-income students and their families with produce and nonperishable goods.
The number needing help has been growing, Tippins said. TABLE served 500 children in October, up from 400 in February 2015 and 226 in May 2013, she said. Another 50 children are on a waiting list.
Local schools have prepared 10,237 Food for the Summer meals since June 13, Baker said. The program also has recruited nearly all the 1,500 volunteers needed to deliver and serve the meals, lead activities, read to children and share free Book Harvest books.
The program, which ends Aug. 12, is funded largely through the USDA Summer Food Service Program and with $5,000 grants from UNC and an anonymous donor. Partners include Orange County, UNC, PORCH, Inter-Faith Council for Social Service and Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA.
“They have worked really hard to make sure you have access to summer meals, all summer long,” Baker told the children, “because when school’s out, what do you do when you depend on the meals during the school year – the lunch and the breakfast – and school’s closed?”
More seeking help
While the burden on families is heavier in the summer, hunger is a year-round issue, officials said.
Orange County had 20,900 people living with food insecurity in 2015, or about 15.4 percent of the population, according to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. Nearly 6,000, or 28.1 percent, of those were children under age 18.
The food bank’s Durham Branch, which also covers Durham, Chatham, Person, Granville and Vance counties, distributed 1.2 million pounds of fresh and nonperishable food through 13 partners in Orange County last year.
Orange County residents also are seeking SNAP funds, which they can use to buy groceries, according to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services records.
Twenty-seven more families applied for food assistance in May than in April, and although the number of active cases fell slightly – from 5,547 in April to 5,543 in May – 46 more people received help.
While the amount someone can receive from SNAP depends on their income, expenses and other factors, the amount for a single, childless adult without a job can be up to $194 a month, or $6.25 a day. A family of four can qualify for up to $649 a month, or $5.23 per person per day.
The number qualifying has fallen since December, however, when 6,100 people got food assistance. Many lost their benefits when a SNAP benefits waiver expired for unemployed adults, ages 18 to 49, who don’t have children or a disability.
Benefits for those who aren’t working, going to school or volunteering at least 80 hours a month have been limited since Jan. 1 to three months of food assistance every 36 months. Some may have turned to food pantries when that ran out to fill the gap, officials said.
The IFC continues to see 400 to 500 families at its food pantry every month, said operations director Kristin Lavergne. The partnership with other agencies also helps, she said, especially those that can get food to people in the community, rather than having people come to them.
Donations, besides the typical summer slump, have fallen a little over the last few years, she said.
“When we had the recession and ... people were struggling, people were very aware that they should help out. Then things cooled down and the economy has gotten a little better – it’s still not great – but I think that faded from the forefront,” Lavergne said.
The pantry shelves would be bare at the Rogers Road Community Center in Chapel Hill, were it not for more than a dozen cans of beans, a smattering of jellies and scant amounts of other nonperishable foods. Families are expected to show up Friday for the July pickup.
The pantry has seen about a 15 percent increase in users this year, the Rev. Robert Campbell said, and now provide groceries to at least 50 families a month.
The pantry also provides food for seniors, afterschool snacks and weekend packs for about 35 students during the school year, and breakfast, lunch and snacks for roughly 40 children attending summer camp, he said. The Food for the Summer partnership is serving camp lunches this year.
Some of the food at Rogers Road and 10 other pantries arrives through PORCH, a Carrboro-based nonprofit.
Pantries told them that the need is bigger this summer, PORCH Executive Director Susan Romaine said, and school social workers are referring more people to the nonprofit’s Food for Families program.
The program is providing a week’s worth of fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy products to a record 1,500 people in 350 families this year, said Debbie Horwitz, PORCH co-founder and director. That’s up from 1,287 people in 294 families last year.
Horwitz credited increasing donations, including through Weaver Street Market’s annual fundraiser, for more families being served. Local schools and families already using pantries are letting others know that help is available, she said.
About 90 percent of PORCH’s clients are working families who still can’t make ends meet, she said. Those coming to Rogers Road, Campbell said, are also struggling with the balance between paying for food and meeting other needs, including higher housing costs.
Summer also means “the kids are home more, so they eat more, because all of them are not getting the chance to go out to a summer camp,” he said.
The Orange County Department of Social Services is seeing a lot more families, including refugees, applying for SNAP benefits, said Elizabeth Phillips, income maintenance supervisor. DSS staff may refer them to the food pantries until they’re approved, she said.
Some may continue to visit the pantries for fresh produce, Phillips said, especially if they’re unfamiliar with American canned goods.
“I do think there has been an increase across the board with the food pantries,” she said. “Whether you get food stamps or not, the fact that it’s available to you, I think a lot of people find beneficial.”
How to help
▪ PORCH: Tandem, 200 N. Greensboro St. in Carrboro, is donating $5 from every PORCH cocktail sold this month and 10 percent of its lunch and dinner sales on Tuesday, July 19. bit.ly/1PwXFb3
▪ Rogers Road Community Center: Food pantry desperately needs nonperishable goods. Donate at 101 Edgar St., Chapel Hill, or online at bit.ly/29xI0tz.
▪ Help available: Contact the Orange County Department of Social Services at 919-245-2800 or bit.ly/1MRqYzO.
▪ TABLE: Donate food (list on website) at 205 W. Weaver St. in Carrboro or online at www.tablenc.org.