Education

Many Wake County students go hungry during winter break

Lynn Road Elementary School's social worker Melissa Plum packs book bags with donated canned food and dry goods Thursday, December 17, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C. Plum delivers the book bags to students who are part of the Backpack Buddies program. The book bags go home with students who are in need of supplemental food on the weekends.
Lynn Road Elementary School's social worker Melissa Plum packs book bags with donated canned food and dry goods Thursday, December 17, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C. Plum delivers the book bags to students who are part of the Backpack Buddies program. The book bags go home with students who are in need of supplemental food on the weekends. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Thousands of Wake County students face going hungry during the next two weeks while schools are on winter break and not providing the breakfasts and lunches that low-income students rely on for daily meals.

While middle-to-upper-income students enjoy the winter holidays, some parents of their less-well-off peers may be trying to find enough food to put on the table. This lack of regular access to food when Wake County schools are closed is one of the concerns for a group of county, school and local leaders who are trying to develop ways to address the issue.

“As we go into the holidays, we know that there will be children who sadly won’t have access to adequate healthy food, and that’s a reality for many of our families,” said Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria. “So my hope is we can continue our efforts to find solutions to help those children and those families in general, but especially in times of their greatest need.”

Calabria pushed this year for the formation of the Food Security Working Group to address how families don’t have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. They’re working during a time when there are 110,860 children who are food insecure in the seven-county Raleigh branch service area of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

The agency defines food insecurity as being unable to have consistent access to “nutritious and adequate amounts of food necessary for an active and healthy life.” Households served by the agency may literally not know where their next meal will come from.

The Wake County Board of Commissioners has made food security more of a focus this year, including providing $90,000 so the school system could expand the Universal Breakfast program into 13 more schools. The program, now in 25 high-poverty Wake County elementary schools, provides all students a free breakfast regardless of family income.

The county has also worked with the school system to expand the Summer Food Service Program that provides meals to low-income students during the long summer break.

Calabria said everyone should care about reducing food insecurity, because well-fed students are more likely to be successful and stay out of trouble.

“We have 120,000 people in poverty in our county, which means we have more people in poverty than 75 other counties have people,” Calabria said. “When we can improve student outcomes and reduce incidents of behavioral issues, everyone wins.”

With an enrollment of 157,180 students, the Wake County school system is on the front lines of dealing with the food insecurity issue. Last week, school administrators briefed a school board committee on the district’s efforts to meet the emergency-food needs of its students.

During the school year, the Backpack Buddies program provides 2,879 students in 107 schools with non-perishable food items such as crackers and peanut butter to help feed them through the weekend. The program is a result of partnerships between individual schools and community groups.

“We know that it’s not going to solve everything, but we also know it’s a great way to be able to give food over the weekends to some of our neediest students,” said Darlene Johnson, Wake’s director of school social work.

Backpack Buddies has limitations because students don’t receive the food when schools are not in session, such as during prolonged snow days, holidays and spring break.

Groups such as Grow Our Kids supplement Backpack Buddies during the school year.

Grow Our Kids started in 2012 to help provide needy families at western Wake schools with food during the periodic three-week breaks in the year-round calendar. Samantha LoPiccolo, founder of Grow Our Kids, said the nonprofit group responded to the way that current programs didn’t address the needs of year-round students when they’re on break.

LoPiccolo said the group decided to expand its efforts last year to provide food to families during the winter break. This year, she said they’re providing food for 160 families to help them get through the holidays.

“It’s obviously a special time of year and we want to help the holidays be a little brighter for the children we work with,” LoPiccolo said.

LoPiccolo said they’re trying to prevent situations where kids return to class feeling sick and run down because of lack of food during the break.

Backpacks went out last week, but typically they weren’t larger than normal, according to Heather Lawing, a Wake County schools spokeswoman. She said some community groups might have on their own placed gift cards in the backpacks to help the families of students over the winter break.

Lawing said that school social workers may have referred parents of needy students to community resources such as food pantries where they could seek help while classes are out.

The holiday season is a busy time for local food pantries and food banks. Terry Foley, director of Catholic Parish Outreach in Raleigh, said they expect to have as many as 11,000 families come this month to pick up a week’s worth of groceries.

Moving forward, one of the long-term recommendations from the county’s Food Security Working Group is to investigate ways to deliver food to students during periods when school is not in session. For instance, some students went through extended periods without regular food this year when schools were closed during the inclement weather.

Ultimately though, one of the group’s goals is to help move families away from needing emergency food. This includes steps such as promoting cooking classes, encouraging community gardens and food co-ops and determining what policy changes might help reduce childhood hunger.

“You don’t want children to have to pick up a backpack from school every Friday,” said Brenda Elliott, Wake’s assistant superintendent for student support services. “You want there to be more resources of food that’s accessible to them in the community so they are food secure.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Helping families in need

Community groups are helping to provide meals to families during winter break, including those who have children who won’t have access to school meals for the next two weeks. Some groups accept donations, including:

▪ Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina at www.foodbankcenc.org or 919-875-0707

▪ Catholic Parish Outreach at cporaleigh.org or 919-873-0245

▪ Grow Our Kids at www.growourkids.org and 919-267-6651

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