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VOL. 41 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 24, 2017

Surprising number of children go hungry in Midstate

By Kathy Carlson

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Josephine LeVasseurl, left, and Gus Williams, both 7 years old, work together to open up packages of peanut butter crackers to put in bags for families without food. Gus’ mother, Annie Williams says, “I think this is good for the kids, it brings up good conversation and an opportunity to talk about a world they don’t always see into.”

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

In Middle Tennessee, where restaurants seem to pop up overnight and grocery stores offer sushi and $100 bottles of wine, it’s hard to imagine that one in seven people are at risk for hunger, according to Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.

For children, the numbers are worse.

“In Middle Tennessee, one in five children, 21.9 percent, in Second Harvest’s 46-county service area are food insecure, totaling 141,710 children,” Jaynee Day, Second Harvest’s president and CEO, says.

More than 30,000 food-insecure children live in Davidson County, according to Second Harvest.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as limited or uncertain access to enough food to support a healthy life.

Plastic bags are filled with non perishable goods such as crackers, cereals and canned pasta.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Food insecurity “can be particularly devastating among children due to their increased vulnerability and the potential for long-term consequences,” Day explains.

The No Kid Hungry 2015 Hunger in our Schools report found that 3 out of 4 public school teachers say students regularly come to school hungry. Four out of 5 of those teachers say it happens at least once a week.

Teachers point out those children often can’t concentrate, lack energy and perform poorly in the classroom. The report was based on a national survey of teachers and on focus groups.

Breakfasts help with concentration, academic performance and behavior, the survey found.

Second Harvest’s 50 BackPack Programs reach more than 5,251 Midstate children weekly during the school year.

However, many more than 5,251 school children are being fed on weekends since many Second Harvest Partner Agencies and other community organizations, such as a church, operate similar programs to feed kids at risk of hunger, says Elizabeth Bradbury, Second Harvest communications manager.

Second Harvest’s BackPacks for children contain two pop-top entrees, two cereals, a snack, shelf-stable milk and a fruit juice, designed to provide the children with the school breakfast and lunch that aren’t available over the weekend.

Lily LeVasseur, 10 of East Nashville helps pack cereal in bags as part of the food being assembled for families in need at Second Harvest Food Bank.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

The pop-top entrees include Mini Beef Ravioli, Beans & Franks, Mac O’s with Beef, Vegetarian Lasagna, Chicken with Rice, Chili with Beans.

BackPack programs take pains to make sure it’s not obvious to other that children are receiving provisions for the weekend.

“We are very subtle in the way we go about sending these home, so as not to embarrass the students,” says Jennifer Johnson, Wilson County schools spokeswoman.

“Most of them know that they can reach out to a school counselor, one on one, to ask for help. A majority of the backpacks we give out (650 per week) come from Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, and the remainder are provided by area churches.”

Children do not have to be on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program to receive backpack food, Johnson adds, but the school system requires parental permission.

Food is also donated by local business organizations and the Family Resource Center will provide food boxes when requested by counselors or principals.

One local church holds a food pantry each summer, and another church has four food pantries each year. Wilson County Schools’ Family Resource Center alerts parents so they can make reservations for the food pantries.

Rebecca Robinson of Nashville belongs to a Bible study group, faithmoms.net, that meets at the Christ Church YMCA.

For the past two and a-half years, her group has been collecting food for children at a nearby Metro grade school to take home for the weekend.

“We have a whole day where one of our Bible studies will be us putting together the bags,” she explains. “We just help lighten the load” for Second Harvest Food Bank and other groups providing food for the children.

What’s great about being at the Y, she says, is that people don’t need to be part of the Bible study group to donate food. Other Y members come into the building, see a food-collection box and drop off food.

Second Harvest has found that some 29 percent of people in food-insecure households in their service area have incomes making it likely they’re ineligible for federal food-assistance programs, Bradbury says

And 27 percent of food-insecure children are likely not income-eligible for federal nutrition aid.

Generally speaking, people making more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $44,955 in gross income for a family of four currently, are ineligible for such assistance.

What’s more, Bradbury, explains, the percentage of “food-insecure-but-probably-ineligible” in Middle Tennessee has risen by 1 percentage point from last year.

It’s also higher than the national average and illustrates the importance of charitable food assistance.

“What we’ve seen is there’s a real connection with food and health,” Bradbury says. “Inexpensive, high-calorie foods tend to be high in fat, and diets made up mainly of these foods make people more prone to develop diet-related illness.

“More than two-thirds of those we serve have high blood pressure. One-third have diabetes,” she adds.

Consequently, they’re likely to need medications and may face days when they must choose between food and medicine.

Second Harvest has pushed to provide clients with more fresh produce and more-nutritious protein-rich foods. Last month the charity entered into a three-year partnership with LifePoint Health, with the goal of making the community healthier.

Funds from LifePoint were used for a refrigerated truck that Second Harvest uses to deliver produce in Davidson County.

The LifePoint funding also will enable Second Harvest to obtain and distribute 1.1 million pounds of produce, enough for more than 900,000 meals, the charity estimates.

“Hunger is much closer than you think,” she says, “and the face of hunger is one you might recognize.

“Many of our neighbors who are seeking food assistance have jobs, raise families, work toward education and struggle with health problems.”