Durham student food service director James Keaten made the point that kids only have an average of 13 minutes scheduled to get in line, get their trays filled, sit down and eat their lunches in most schools. Photo shows a handwritten sign reading "13 minutes to eat"
Durham student food service director James Keaten made the point that kids only have an average of 13 minutes scheduled to get in line, get their trays filled, sit down and eat their lunches in most schools. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Members of the Durham community came together last week to brainstorm how to help the hungry children around them.

By Rose Hoban

There are 34,000 kids in Durham Public Schools, the majority of whom are eligible for federally funded free or reduced-price lunch.

Jim Keaten, who directs food programs for the district, told that to a room of community activists, policymakers and local legislators eating dinner in a school cafeteria in East Durham one evening last week. He said his budget for food last year was more than $16 million in federal dollars, but that the state chips in only a fraction.

(From L to R) Minnie Forte Brown, Durham school board Chair Heidi Carter and Adam Compton discuss how to address hunger in Durham school children. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Child nutrition does not receive one penny from Durham Public Schools, from the city, from the county,” Keaten said. “We receive $24,000 from the state for our breakfast program. That’s it.”

Listening to a recording of the meeting, one can hear the room fall silent as Keaten made that point. When he told the room he had to pay the district $834,000 last year to cover rent, gas and all of the utilities used in school cafeterias, the clinking of forks on plates had completely stopped.

“Everyone looks at the school system and thinks, ‘Oh, they have all the funding they need,’” Keaten continued. “The General Assembly gives raises to the teachers, but when I want to give my people a raise I’m not getting any more money. I have to cut my food costs or labor.”

School food-service workers in Durham haven’t seen a raise since 2007.

Across North Carolina, school food programs struggle to feed kids, and many of them run in the red.

But the problem only gets worse for kids in the summer, when few kids have access to food programs and those cash-strapped food programs have few resources to feed them.

Food programs starve

Keaten was speaking at a “Gathering for Good” organized by the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, named in memory of the young political activist who was stabbed to death in April, 2013. The organization is run by her husband, Nation Hahn, who said his goal is to spur ideas to help the community.

“If you bring people together, and people from all walks of life, people who care, then magical, wonderful things can happen,” Hahn said.

Durham student food service director James Keaten made the point that in most schools, kids only have an average of 13 minutes scheduled to get in line, get their trays filled, sit down and eat their lunches. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

That’s why about 50 people gathered last week in the basement cafeteria of the Maureen Joy Charter School off East Main Street in Durham were hearing presentations and having conversations about childhood hunger.

Speakers included Rev. Richard Joyner, whose church in Conetoe gets young people working in a community garden, and Heidi Carter, chair of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.

Carter told the crowd the money the food program remits back to the school district each year is needed. Durham schools serve 34,000 children in 54 schools each day.

“I always think we could be channeling that million dollars into food,” she said, “but the flip side to that is we could hire 20 teachers for that million dollars. So there are all these competing priorities.”

In order to make ends meet, Carter said, many child-nutrition programs “resort to selling food that children like to buy, and those might not be the healthiest.”

Further complicating things, the most recent reauthorization of the federal Farm Bill, in 2010, increased nutrition requirements and standards of what could be served in school lunches, Carter explained. Now meals require more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and lean meats, foods that cost more.

“Unfortunately, these requirements did not come with any funding for implementation,” Carter said. She noted there’s a policy debate over whether Congress should relax those new requirements. She said she’d prefer to see lawmakers keep the standards where they are and allocate some funding.

Carter praised Keaten for keeping Durham’s school-food program running in the black.

Short attention span

Carter recounted a story told to her by one of the district’s principals.

“There’s this one little boy, and every day he gets into so much trouble,” Carter quoted the principal as saying. “So I took him aside and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And he said, ‘I’m hungry. I haven’t had anything to eat since lunchtime yesterday.’”

Betsy Dessauer makes a point while (L to R) Mark Dessauer, Emily Egge, Brian Buzb and Richard Joyner listen. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

That was making it impossible for him to focus, she said. “He couldn’t control his impulses, and [it] was making it impossible for him to learn, and he was distracting other children.”

The evening’s moderator, Shorlette Ammons from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, noted the contrast between Durham, the “foodie” hub for people looking for locally sourced gourmet food, and the reality of a district where two-thirds of the children in the public schools live in poverty.

“The irony alone of the highest rates of childhood and adult obesity in the same regions where there are the highest rates of food insecurity,” she said, “does that not blow your mind with the sheer ridiculousness?”

And that hunger remains an issue through the summer, Keaten said, while recent changes to the summer food program have made it harder to reach kids who need it.

Twenty-four percent of eligible Durham schoolchildren participate in the summer food program. That number might seem low, but it’s the highest participation rate of any district in the state.

Keaten explained that when the General Assembly moved summer food programs out of the state Department of Health and Human Services and into the Department of Public Instruction, it meant less paperwork for the school district but more for the organizations that sponsor the meals. In Durham, the number of sponsors went from five in 2014 to three this summer.

“We’ve opened sites where every child can come in and eat a meal,” he said. District officials also have used vans to take breakfasts to 108 sites, including the Salvation Army, the Boys and Girls Club, housing communities and the parks and recreation sites.

But Keaten said there’s not enough capacity to get the food  everywhere it needs to go. He’s hoping to partner with local churches that don’t use their vans during the week to transport the food and provide volunteer drivers.

“There’s millions of federal dollars sitting on the table in Durham alone that don’t come into the county because we’re not bringing those meals,” he said.

Bringing ideas to the table

Attendees broke into small groups to brainstorm ideas of how to address Durham’s child-hunger problem. Suggestions included engaging churches to get involved, ensuring that kids are fed on snow days and getting more kids involved in community gardens.

Hahn said the event wasn’t meant to solve any problems; rather, to point the way to solutions and get local people engaged.

“If you drive awareness, people care; they’re not going to turn away from a hungry child on their doorstep,” he said.  “But every day that we don’t pay attention to legislation, that we don’t pay attention to policy, we’re effectively doing that.

“We believe that if you clue people in, they won’t turn away.”

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