RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- When the community learned the Wake County Schools cafeteria worker protest may leave students without meals on Tuesday, they stepped up.
"These kids need help," said community member Tayara Morrison. "A lot of people don't realize that school is the only lunch a lot of these students get so I wanted to make sure that every kid got a lunch today."
As a former behavioral health specialist at Wake County Public Schools, Morrison knows this issue firsthand.
"I worked at Longview School and we always had a shelter or some type of food storage shelter for the kids. And I know most schools don't have that," she said.
Morrison said she saw kids going hungry every day.
"It's like a flashback," Morrison said. "I don't want it to be my kid. And I know there's people out here that don't want to ask for help or don't feel like they should ask for help."
Around 60% of students across North Carolina qualified for free and reduced lunches last year. This percentage is up 5% since 2015.
"It's kind of a quiet challenge but so many students really depend on these meals and they are the only meals they get and certainly the healthy meal options that they receive may be those that they get at school," explained Tamara Baker, the project and communication director at the Carolina Hunger Initiative.
Locally, around a third of Wake County Public School students were considered economically disadvantaged based on the latest state data from the 2019-2020 school year. More than 60% of Durham's students were economically disadvantaged in 2019-2020.
"We are very concerned about continued access not just during the pandemic, but all the time every day. And that's why these meal programs were established is to be able to serve that critical need," Baker said.
While federal programs serve as a critical component to combatting child hunger, food insecurities impact more than just students.
The ABC Owned Television Data Team analyzed federal data and found multiple tracts across the Triangle are food insecure.
Many communities in southern Raleigh report low income and low food access. Around a third of the population live more than half a mile away from a supermarket in low food access zones. Areas near Garner, Cary, Knightdale and southeastern Durham are also in low-income and lower food access zones.
"I think you'd be surprised where some of the food deserts are. And so that's kind of an official term from USDA. They identify areas where folks don't have access to supermarkets, and so a lot of them would be buying groceries from convenience stores and corner stores and things like that", explained Amy Jones, the Founder and Board Chair of PORCH Communities in Durham.
Her organization hosts neighborhood food drives that distribute around 6,000 pounds of food across Durham and partners with pantries.
Jones said these gaps have increased since the pandemic began. She said some food pantries they work is serving six times the number of families they assisted before 2020.
"We've been hearing about how it's an issue that has really been amplified during the pandemic. It's families that have to make tough decisions about where their money is gonna go. Can they put food on the table?" Jones said.
To take more areas out of these insecure zones, both Jones and Baker's organizations are continuing to partner with pantries and work with schools.
Baker explains part of the solution is spreading awareness to families that money and resources are available to assist them.
"The dollars are set aside to feed all of these children. The numbers of the dollars are not pulled down unless we access them by serving individual students school meals, and so I just I'm hopeful that this will also help shine a light on the need for all parents to think about how they can help their child and the greater good by giving school meals a chance," Baker said.
Jones said this is a similar issue outside the school setting.
"There's actually a lot of money that is left on the table in terms of SNAP benefits and WIC benefits," she said. "Just getting people registered and signed up for those types of programs is really important."
'These kids need help': Food insecurity plagues areas of the Triangle
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