Hunger is a grim reality in the Charleston Promise Neighborhood area. The Principal, teachers, and service providers at Chicora School of Communications have seen it: the bloated stomachs of their elementary school students, the students who rush to the school lunch line, or bite their nails, or ask for other students’ snacks or complain of headaches or stomach aches. “A lot of the students come off the Monday morning school bus hungry,” says Principal Brian Agnew who keeps a stock of packaged crackers outside his office.
But the good news is that hunger is far less a problem at Chicora because of BackPack Buddies, a weekend food program developed by Lowcountry Food Bank in 2006. Student support specialists identified 105 students needing this service last fall. Trident United Way pays for it’s per school limit of 85; when a waiting list developed, Charleston Promise Neighborhood picked up the tab for the extra 20. These 3 pound backpacks, distributed Friday afternoons, contain nine items: two breakfast cereals, two entrees (canned ravioli, Beef Stew, etc), two shelf-stable dairy items like milk and chocolate milk, one granola bar and two fruit cups.
“It isn’t really dinner, “says Jai Rossington, the Chicora school student support specialist. “But in most cases it gets the students through the weekend till they get back here at school and get two meals a day. It is crucial. 98% of our students are below the poverty level. 98% of our families get food stamps or Women, Infant, and Children (WIC).” According to Lowcountry Food Bank, in 2011, 2,600 children got backpacks in the 10 coastal counties of South Carolina. The estimated number of food insecure individuals in that area was 140,830 in 2010.* That number has only increased.
The food, while not fresh, is nutritional and gives the children of working parents a healthy alternative to sodas and chips found at local convenience stores; there is no supermarket in the neighborhood. Supported by CPN, Lowcountry Food Bank also delivered Groceries in a Box to 100 Chicora school families at the beginning of winter break. Inside are 20 lbs of staples, such as rice, cereal, macaroni, Velveeta, canned vegetables, milk and juice.
The food programs have been a door-opener for other school and community support services designed to serve these families. When they come to school for food, parents hear about the school’s KidsWell clinic, the school’s mental health services, the employee readiness programs, says Mr. Agnew. Some of these programs were funded by Charleston Promise Neighborhood, others by Trident United Way.
“We can treat the whole family, not just the hungry child,” says Mr. Agnew. “Charleston Promise Neighborhood was the catalyst that got it all moving in the right direction.”
We can identify families whose parents have lost jobs, adds Ms. Rossington. She and a co-worker case-manage 85 families, doing home visits, group counseling, taking parents to job interviews in a whole-family focused way. Trident United Way and Communities in Schools funds her salary. Ms. Rossington even found a new home and $1,500 worth of donated household supplies for one third-grader’s family who lost their home in a fire.
“You don’t know the enormity of hunger until you go to the Lowcountry Food Bank and see a warehouse of food stacked to the ceiling,” says Mr. Agnew. “It is eye opening.”
“It gave hunger a new face,” agrees Ms. Rossington. And because 105 students are served with a weekend meal, Mr. Agnew sums up, “the attention spans are there, the on-task behavior, the completion of work; all because they are not preoccupied with hunger.”
*Map the Meal Gap 2012: Food Insecurity Estimates at the County Level. Feeding America, 2012. Research supported by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and The Nielsen Company. 1
Map the Meal Gap’s food insecurity rates are determined using data from the 2001-2010 Current Population Survey on individuals in food insecure households; and data from the 2010 American Community Survey on median household incomes, unemployment rates, poverty rates, and race and ethnic demographics.