COVID-19 pandemic highlights the problem of food insecurity in North Carolina communities

This story was featured in our ABC11 special program The Racial Divide: Inequity in Education
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, when it comes to the percentage of public school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in the United States, North Carolina has a rate of 57.4 percent, higher than the national average of 52.3 percent.

All schools work year-round to help provide meals to students who qualify and when coronavirus hit North Carolina in March, districts scrambled to find a way to keep feeding the more than 845,000 of the 1.5 million economically disadvantaged students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

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Across the state, grab and go meal sites went up as districts worked to keep consistent meals in place for students.



"We know that in Wake County, we have about 51,000 free and reduced lunch children," said Wake School Board Member Roxy Cash.

As the largest school school district in the state, Wake County ranks lower than the state average for number of students economically disadvantaged at 32.44 percent. Around the rest of Central North Carolina, Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district also comes in below the state average at 26.42 percent. Chatham County also falls below the state average at 46.15 percent. However, Durham and Cumberland counties both come in well above the state average with Durham reporting 61.42 percent and Cumberland County 78.65 percent of students economically disadvantaged.

As every district deals with the issue of food insecurity, Cash says the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the communities in the district most in need.

"Student assignment personnel helped me get the numbers and find the places," Cash said. "These are the people in the shadows, they couldn't drive to our school, many don't have transportation."

Cash says a partnership between schools and private businesses and nonprofits is what allowed them to reach those communities in the shadows.

In March, Rocky Top Catering in Raleigh partnered with the nonprofit, Overflowing Hands to prepare and deliver thousands of family meals and 15 pound produce boxes, paid for with a grant from the USDA, into neighborhoods in need.

"We started the third week of March and since that point, we've served over 300,000 meals to focus on community through partnerships with several different organizations," said Dean Ogen, owner of Rocky Top Catering.

"They're fresh and hearty meals that have at least two pounds of protein, two pounds of starch and two pounds of vegetables and instructions in English and Spanish so folks can just throw it in the oven," Ogan said.

Ogan says the work for him is about caring for the students but it has revealed entire families are hungry in the crisis.

"It's very eye opening. Some of these folks in these communities, I mean, they literally have nothing in the refrigerator," he said.
Funding is the biggest hurdle to continuing the work for Rocky Top and Overflowing Hands.

"We've been almost completely funded until two weeks ago, completely funded by private funding," said Chandler Ellis, Overflowing Hands President and Executive Director. "We've raised over $440,000 dollars and we are still waiting to see what's going to happen with schools and we think this is going to need to continue."

While the need to help students who are food insecure will be around long after the coronavirus, Wake School Board Member Roxy Cash says the pandemic has proven how important a public and private partnership is to reach those who need help the most when a crisis does hit.

"We need a lot of extra hands on deck during a pandemic and any emergency we might have in the future, whether it be hurricane or whatever," Cash said. "At any kind of disaster, we need extra people so we need to set up something that works in that direction, some type of service that we can call on private entities to come in and help in an emergency."
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