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Summer hunger in children: An ongoing fight

by Allison Stalberg

Food boxes at Second Harvest Food Bank.

The typical summer vacation story for kids involves pool parties, cold lemonade and beach trips. For at least two thirds of families in Guilford County though, the summer story includes food insecurity. More than half of the children attending local public schools, particularly in Guilford and Forsyth counties, quality for free or reduced priced meals. But when school is out for the summer, so are the free and affordable meals. The Second Harvest Food Bank and their network agencies are working to spread the word on summer hunger. Second Harvest is a part of a huge network of organizations trying to ease child hunger in the summertime. “Families don’t have extra money to support this need,” said Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, marketing and communications coordinator with Second Harvest. “Summer is particularly complicated for low wage working families because you also have to pay for additional child care during the summer. “Summer is an expensive time for low income families and food is the piece that we see people wiggle on because you can’t pay just half of your water bill or 70 percent of your electric bill. It doesn’t work like that. People tend to pay all their bills and what’s leftover—if anything¬—is for food. We think it’s a horrible situation for anyone in America. So we have great concern for these kids.” A big concern is that the summer hunger gap hurts children in terms of health. “We know that parents will buy quantity over quality of food while stretching their budgets as far as they can,” said Frisbie-Fulton. “The cheapest items to buy in the grocery store are not the most nutritious but if you’re trying to make sure your child has something to eat, you’re going to go with the less expensive empty calories, which can then lead to other problems for children including obesity and malnutrition.” To help families suffering from hunger, the Second Harvest Food Bank collects and sends food to be distributed at pantries. The organization is partnered with more than 400 food assistance programs. One such program is Guilford County’s Out of the Garden. Don Milholin, executive director of Out of the Garden, finds summer to be the biggest challenge for feeding children. With schools being a primary location for their food to reach children, transportation and location become big issues. One solution is using recreation centers because they are based in neighborhoods. Another challenge both pantries and food banks see is that hunger is an invisible problem for those not affected. “I hear a lot of people that simply don’t believe that two thirds of our kids can possibly be hungry, but that’s because they are in the one third,” said Milholin. “Hunger in our area is definitely not what you think of in a third world country,” said Frisbie-Fulton. “If you were looking for signs of famine, you’re not going to find them in the United States. But what you are going to find is kids with nutritional deficiencies, with diabetes and with other food related or nutrition related illnesses that are compromising their health and frankly their futures.” The pantries that work to get children fed make a difference for more than just the children. “A couple of our own staff, how we initially met them or how they met us was through one of our mobile fresh markets and they ended up helping,” said Milholin. “I hear all the time from moms that they used to receive food from the backpack program with Out of the Garden project so they want to come out and help and volunteer at our warehouse.”

Many who contribute to the pantries are volunteers and young interns. Food and funds are donated through people and organizations like Second Harvest. Some grocery stores with food they cannot use call upon the pantries to pick the food up.

There is never a lack of stories and one of Milholin’s favorite stories was from a teacher.

“We started providing backpacks at her school and she sent me an email two weeks after and she said how grateful she was for the food. She said she could see in a child’s eyes when the light goes out, ‘no matter what I do, I can’t reach them’ and she said that just after two weeks of having meals on the weekend, she said the light has come back on in some of her students eyes. That’s really what we’re about.”

Does your family suffer from summer hunger? Or are you interested in helping? Learn more at www.hungernwnc.org.

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