If some students are especially eager to get back to school after nearly two weeks away, it may not be because they’re hungry to learn. They may actually be hungry.
In the seven-county region of Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston, Chatham, Nash and Edgecombe, 116,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students – 43 percent of the combined area’s student population – applied for free or reduced-price meals at school in the 2012 school year, the most recent data available. For some, the school cafeteria is the most reliable source of food in their lives.
But back-to-back winter storms that forced schools to close for as many as eight of the past 10 teaching days have left those students to find others ways to fill their bellies. Nearly 2,000 of them also rely on take-home bags handed out on Fridays filled with enough food to get them through the weekend. Most of those meals, too, have gone undelivered for two weeks in a row.
Stuck at home for as many as 22 meals their parents may not have been prepared to provide, they may miss meals, or eat for lunch what their parents had planned to serve for supper, and devour on Wednesday what was supposed to feed the family on Thursday. Social service agencies say this creates a running deficit that can set a family back for weeks, or require them to choose between paying utility or pharmacy bills, and having enough food.
“I worry very much about kids not getting anything to eat over the snow break,” said Kyle Abrams, child and hunger programs manager for Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, the Raleigh-based hunger-relief organization that coordinates the BackPack Buddies program to provide weekend nutrition for children in the seven-county region. “Most, hopefully, are able to scrounge out something for themselves. It’s tough when the schools aren’t running.”
Though they dropped less than a foot of snow and ice, the February storms were enough to get Joyce Todd-Jones in over her head on her family finances.
A divorced mother of six who says she receives no child support, Todd-Jones has no money to spare on her best days. And with reduced hours at her convalescent nursing job cutting into her paycheck, and a missed month of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits because her paperwork got lost, Todd-Jones had no cushion to absorb the extra blow of eight days of no school – and no school lunches.
Confined to their Southeast Raleigh apartment, it didn’t take long for the kids, ages 5 months to 16 years, to eat their way through everything in the cabinets and the refrigerator.
Todd-Jones is a regular at Raleigh’s largest food pantry, Catholic Parish Outreach, but she had already been there for the week’s worth of groceries the pantry offers its clients once a month. So last week, she took the $366 she had set aside to pay her water and electric bills and bought groceries she hopes will last through the middle of March.
“Hearing your child say that they’re hungry is a parent’s worst nightmare,” said Todd-Jones, 36. “I make sure that they have enough food. There have been times that I go without eating; it’s just what we do as parents. I try my best for them not to notice.”
Eating cupboards bare
During summer and holiday breaks, some students have access to feeding programs run by community groups. BackPack Buddies helps on weekends throughout the school year, as long as volunteers are able to distribute the bags.
But there are no protocols to make sure children have access to food during extended weather-related school closures, and parents have been limited in getting food on their own. They couldn’t get out because of the slick roads, and even if they had, many of the dozens of food pantries that operate locally were closed because volunteers and staff were snowed in at home.
“People are calling and they say their children are eating them out of house and home,” said Sylvia Wiggins, who runs the Helping Hand Mission on Rock Quarry Road in Raleigh. “They say everything is gone, and they don’t know how they’re going to replenish their supply.”
Helping Hand receives food donations from local grocery stores, including treasured gifts of day-old bread and fresh fruits and vegetables. Wiggins said she and her volunteers stayed open as many hours as they could before and after the storms and gave bags of food to people who were able to come and get them.
“When you’re working with families, you don’t want people to get frustrated,” Wiggins said. “When they get frustrated, sometimes they turn on children. Having something to eat does help keep the calm, and lets them know things are not as bad as they seem.”
Volunteers at a few area schools worked between the bouts of bad weather to try to get food into the hands – and mouths – of the children they support through BackPack Buddies.
Inter-Faith Food Shuttle provides much of the food for the backpacks, which go to 1,927 children at 62 schools. The packing and distribution are done by volunteers from the schools, civic organizations, churches and businesses.
The backpack program, and in-school food pantries Inter-Faith stocks, are the agency’s largest child-hunger prevention programs. The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, based in Raleigh, also supports a weekend food distribution program called Weekend Power Pack in some of the 34 counties where it operates.
Solving the problem
Many schools were not able to distribute their backpacks either of the past two weeks, because volunteers couldn’t get the bags to the schools, and the students couldn’t come pick them up. But some schools came up with solutions.
After the first storm hit, members of the Raleigh Junior League wondered how they could help the 62 children at Lacy Elementary School who rely on the bags, which contain enough nonperishable items for six meals and several snacks.
“Everyone was going to bed at night thinking it: ‘How are these kids eating?’” said Samantha Hatem, co-captain of the Junior League’s program. Junior Leaguers got the bags to a group of parent volunteers, who delivered them to the children at home. When the second storm kept children out of school the next Friday, the drill was repeated.
Liz Healy, who helps with the BackPack Buddies program at George Watts Elementary, a Durham Montessori magnet school, said volunteers there scrambled to action on Wednesday as the second storm approached. First, someone sent a mass email around 9 a.m. asking parents for food donations to be brought to the school. Then they notified parents of the 30 or so children who normally receive a backpack that food was available if they could get there to pick it up. In a few cases, teachers volunteered to deliver to children’s homes.
At the end of the day, there was food left over, and that was taken to Durham Urban Ministries, which gave it away through its food pantry.
Once road conditions improved, some food pantries hoped to extend their hours to try to help families restock their cupboards.
The Point Church, which recently added a campus in Apex, already had planned to open a food pantry and serve a hot meal on Saturday at the new location, at the intersection of U.S. 1 and N.C. 55. Earlier in the week, volunteers packed bags of groceries to give away there and at the church’s Cary location, on Walnut Street. They dropped in boxes of pasta, jars of peanut butter, cans of corn and soup.
On the previous Saturday – the one between storms – 61 families came to the food pantry at The Point in Cary, including six families who had never been before, said Jay Cook, care pastor for the church.
While it’s rare for North Carolina schoolchildren to miss so many days because of weather, Peter Morris, executive director of Urban Ministries of Wake County, said it would be worth considering ways to help disadvantaged families stock up ahead of predicted storms or get additional food as soon as it’s safe to travel.
From its pantry, Urban Ministries distributes about half a million pounds of food a year. Catholic Parish Outreach distributes about three times that amount.
In the long term, Morris said, the most effective way to prevent children from going hungry is to educate their parents on making good choices in the food they buy and how they prepare it.
“When bad weather comes, even the best of us don’t have the best-stocked pantries,” he said, adding that many people gorge on junk food when they’re kept captive by the weather.
Not Joyce Todd-Jones, who learned from her grandmother how to stretch a dollar the length of a dinner table. She shops at a big-box store to get bulk discounts, often uses meat as flavoring rather than a main course, gets fruits and vegetables when she can and stays away from sugary foods. She loves to cook. One night last week, she made 16-bean soup and cornbread.
“People would be surprised,” she said. “That can of beans that is in their pantry that they don’t want to eat could make a world of difference for a family. For us, a bag of beans and some smoked meat, that goes a long way.
“With that, I can make a meal that’ll warm the bones.”
Staff writer Sarah Barr contributed to this report.
Here’s how you can help
▪ The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, based in Raleigh, distributes food to community organizations across 34 counties. The Food Bank accepts donations of food and cash. For more information, go to www.foodbankcenc.org.
▪ The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle uses cash donations to purchase food below retail prices and distributes it across seven counties in the Triangle and beyond. For more information, go to http://foodshuttle.org.
▪ Catholic Parish Outreach serves an average of 10,500 people each month, and says a $25 donation can feed a family for a week. For more information, go to www.cporaleigh.org.
▪ Urban Ministries of Wake County gets about half the 500,000 pounds of food it distributes each year from individuals, civic groups and churches. Food donations can be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Cash donations are welcome. For more information, go to www.urbanmin.org.
▪ Helping Hand Mission collects food at three locations in Raleigh and one in Wendell. It distributes the food through “love baskets” that clients can pick up at the mission, and it delivers some to the elderly. Find more information at http://helpinghandmission.org.
▪ Urban Ministries of Durham relies on donations of food and cash to operate its food pantry, and has a list of items it needs at www.umdurham.org.
If you need help
Dozens of pantries across the Triangle provide food to families in need. Some are open daily, others just a few hours a week. Some require certification through Social Services and limit pantry visits to once every 30 days.
Here are some:
Catholic Parish Outreach, 2013 N. Raleigh Blvd., Raleigh, 919-873-0245. Open to clients from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Urban Ministries of Wake County, 1390 Capital Blvd., Raleigh, 919-836-1642. Pantry is open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Helping Hand Mission, 623 Rock Quarry Road, Raleigh, 919-829-8048. Pantry is open daily for as long as food is available.
Millbrook United Methodist Church, 1712 E. Millbrook Road, Raleigh, 919-876-0865. Food pantry open 10 a.m. to noon Monday, Wednesday and Saturday for Wake County residents.
Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, 110 W. Main St., Carrboro, 919-929-6380. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and until 7 p.m. on most Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Serves those who live or work in Chapel Hill or Carrboro.
Urban Ministries of Durham, 410 Liberty St., Durham, 919-682-0538. Food pantry serves up to 26 households per day, Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Visitors must wait outside until sign-up begins at 9 a.m.
Edgerton Memorial United Methodist Church, 401 W. Anderson St., Selma, 919-965-3761. Food pantry is open Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.