'They're not charity cases.' How NC advocates, lawmakers work to address food insecurity

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Monday, June 5, 2023
Lawmakers, advocates work to address rising food insecurity issues
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According to School Meals for All NC, one in six children in the state goes hungry on a daily basis, a figure which is worse in rural counties.

At Meals on Wheels of Durham, the goal for staff and volunteers is simply keeping up with demand.

"Right now, it's about 300 people on the waitlist. And so, we've seen probably about a 14% increase since March when the SNAP benefit ended," said Executive Director Jason Peace, referring to the temporary program put into place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A study from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported the average household lost $95 a month for groceries as a result of the program ending, which combined with inflation, has placed further stress on families bottom lines.

"When you start talking about older adults, those are typically the folks whose social networks are shrinking. So, they're not able to reach out to as many people or as many people may not know about them and their particular situation," Peace explained.

Peace said they are hoping to bring in more healthy and fresh foods, though acknowledge they are limited by capacity freezer and refrigeration space. With temperatures warming up, they are also going to collect donated fans to distribute.

Another group at-risk of food insecurity: children. According to School Meals for All NC, one in six children in the state goes hungry on a daily basis, a figure which is worse in rural counties.

"The tables could easily turn, especially with the cost of living just creeping on up," said Turquoise LeJeune Parker, who serves as the Media Coordinator at Lakewood Elementary in Durham.

Parker started Bull City FOODraiser in 2015, which has expanded from aiding one classroom to twelve schools in the district. The biannual event provides meals to students during spring and winter breaks, two periods in which schools are closed and readily, available meals may be difficult to access otherwise.

"They're not charity cases. A lot of people come to schools like that are in this 12 schools that receive these groceries and they think all these poor kids are just - no, these kids are brilliant," said Parker.

In DPS, 64% of students receive free or reduced meals, with the dozen participating schools largely comprised of qualifying students.

"We need to make sure we have food in the bag that can be used no matter of the living situation," Parker explained.

"When our students are hungry, they're not focused in class. They're tired, they have a tendency to get angry more quickly, and they're sometimes lethargic or just removed from the classroom," said Leah Carper, the 2022 Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year.

Carper is speaking from experience, as her family struggled with food insecurity when she was a child.

"I've always had this deep connection with schools that they aren't just places where kids are fed academically, but they're also places where they're fed physically," said Carper.

The House budget proposal calls for $7.8 million in nonrecurring funds to pay off school meal debt stemming from the 2022-2023 school year.

The Senate version includes $3 million in recurring funds to cover reduced co-pays (the amount students on reduced lunch pay). On top of that, there is $6 million ($500,000 in 2023-2024 and $5.5 million 2024-2025) for the Department of Public Instruction to create a "pilot program to increase the number of schools participating in the federal CEP program." The CEP program would provide free meals to all students in high-poverty areas. The budget proposal also includes clarifying terminology that would specify students cannot face administrative punishments, including withheld student records or exclusion from participating in graduation, due to unpaid school meal debt.

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Advocates with School Meals for All NC are continuing efforts to ultimately see all public school students in the state receive free breakfast and lunch.

"(It) was running through my mind how the situations and circumstances outside of school that impact our kids, how much of an impact that has on their ability to perform? And when I say perform, I don't mean just academically. I mean enthusiasm, the ability to enthusiastically approach their learning or have social interaction because it's hard to move without breakfast," said Parker.

"If our students don't have to worry about food and clothing or any of those things, they can worry about learning in school. We can eliminate any other stress so we can focus why we're here in the first place, which is to learn. And that would be the most beautiful thing in the world. And the truth is our kids are coming to school with so many other things, that it's hard for them to learn. If we can at least eliminate one of those things, it would be great," said Carper.

According to NCDPI, more than 900,000 students in the state rely on meals during the School Breakfast, School Lunch, and Afterschool Snack Programs. The department is highlighting its Summer Nutrition Programs, which provides free meals to children and adolescents 18 and younger. To learn more, you can text "Food" to 304-304 in English or "COMIDA" to 304-304 for information in Spanish. Click here to see food pick-up sites.