Food banks and hunger-relief organizations are critical to the safety net for people, and especially children, who are affected by food insecurity.
By Hyun Namkoong
On a hot summer evening in June, a group of children waited in the parking lot of a low-income community in Holly Springs to sign up for hot meals and one-on-one reading assistance from the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Read and Feed.
Bright-orange cones sectioned off a safe area for kids to gather and eat beef stroganoff, honey dew melon and salad from the IFFS Mobile Tastiness Machine, and to take home classic children’s books such as Where the Wild Things Are from Read and Feed’s bookmobile.
The Mobile Tastiness Machine is a colorfully painted food truck that makes daily rounds, Monday to Friday, delivering lunch and dinner to locations in Wake and Durham counties.
The Read and Feed’s big and, thankfully, air-conditioned bookmobile houses a small library and desks and chairs for the children and volunteers, many of whom are school teachers who help the kids maintain their reading levels during the summer holidays.
“Reading opens the door to opportunity. Our program is designed to close that [literacy] gap and thus provide the opportunity for children later in life,” said Traci Hood, Read and Feed’s executive director.
The two organizations provide food assistance in the summer to help fill the summer “meal gap” for children, a term used by hunger-relief organizations to describe the interruption of meals because children aren’t in school.
According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, more than half of all students in grades K-12 qualified for free or reduced lunch in the 2012-13 school year.
The need for food assistance during the summer is great, and organizations like IFFS and Read and Feed are rare.
Alan Briggs, executive director of the N.C. Association of Feeding America Food Banks, said that many low-income kids dread summer, not because they worry they’ll be bored on long, lazy afternoons, but because they worry about the hunger they know will come.
“This is one of the saddest times of the year,” he said.
‘Safety net for the safety net’
Briggs said those kids, and the food banks that help them, have had a rough year, marked by sharply increased demand because of problems with a new computer system.
In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to pull $88 million in funding from North Carolina for failure to address a backlog of more than 30,000 eligible people who were unable to receive their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (commonly known as food stamps) because of delays rolling out a new information management system at the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Problems with NC FAST (Families Accessing Service through Technology), a computerized system designed to serve as a tool to process applications “in an expedited and consistent manner,” resulted in some families waiting months for their food stamps.
During the delays with processing food stamp applications, many families were turned away from county departments of social services and referred to local hunger-relief organizations.
“A lot of people weren’t getting their food stamps in a timely fashion. They come to food banks,” Briggs said. “This past year, food banks, as the private-sector response to hunger, have had to become the safety net for the safety net.”
DHHS press assistant Kirsti Clifford said that at present, “only 13 counties have 10 more untimely applications,” and that the food and nutrition case work “has stabilized, and counties have been able to maintain timeliness standards since meeting the USDA deadline on March 31.”
Shifting to self-reliance
In an industrial-sized kitchen equipped with gleaming vats and stocked with boxes of local sweet potatoes, a group of IFFS employees and interns, including Antonio Crowder, was busy chopping up apples for the lunches of 140 children who live in low-income neighborhoods in Durham and Raleigh.
“We’re probably the only business you’ll ever talk to who would like to go out of business as our ultimate goal,” Briggs said.
In order to meet their goal of closing those doors, food banks and hunger-relief organizations are shifting to a model that encourages self-reliance, job-skills training and nutrition education.
“There is sometimes an unfortunate stereotype about people in need,” Briggs said. “These folks are not sitting on their duffs wanting a hand out. For every stereotype you see like that, there are 10 folks out there genuinely embarrassed to be in that situation.”
Since 1999, the IFFS has trained hundreds of people in its Culinary Job Training Program, an 11-week course that teaches culinary and other life skills, such as handling personal finances. The program saw its 65th class graduate last week.
“We bring in life-challenged adults. They come from incarceration, substance abuse, or just on their hard luck,” said Kyle Abrams, child-hunger programs manager for IFFS. “After the 11-week class, they’re able to get jobs in the culinary world.”
Next week, Crowder leaves his paid internship to start a job with a catering company in the Raleigh Convention Center.
“Teaching people how to be self-sustainable, I think that’s the future of everything,” Abrams said.
While Briggs recognizes the importance of addressing the causes of food insecurity, he highlighted the importance of providing immediate hunger relief.
“Make no mistake, we’re very proud of [all] we do. But we’re hunger relief,” he said. “We’re trying to get food to people today.”
Last year, the Feeding America food banks distributed 140 million pounds of food in North Carolina, which is about 120 million meals.
Briggs said that the economic downturn and the state’s decision to opt out of federal long-term unemployment benefits have contributed to food insecurity in the state.
Last December, nearly 800,000 North Carolinians received food stamps.
“[People] don’t think that hunger exists here, but it does,” Abrams said.
“Those faces you see in ads on TV for hunger in other countries, those same faces exist here.”