I can clearly remember being a young mother walking into the grocery store with a carefully planned shopping list, coupons, and a calculator. If I forgot the calculator I had a pen or a pencil and literally kept a running tally of how much I was spending as I went. I counted every penny. Of course, I was more successful at staying on budget when the kids weren’t shopping with me. As my children grew into teenagers, I used to joke that I may as well direct deposit my check at Ingles. It seemed I was always there.
I haven’t had to keep a running tally in a while, but I’m not so far removed from it that I can’t remember having to be really careful, or to understand that there are many around me who can’t just buy food on a whim. In fact, in this day and age when food is so abundant, and we waste so much of it, it is a little hard to believe that anyone struggles with access to enough food. But, they do.
Food insecurity is particularly troublesome for children who do not have the power or the means to take care of themselves and who must depend on the adults in their lives to do so. NC Child reports that in 2015, “more than 1 in 6 U.S. children (18 percent) lived in households that were food-insecure at some point during the year, and 0.7 percent experienced the most severe level of need, where food intake is reduced and regular eating patterns are disrupted.” The term “food-insecure” is used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to refer to the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
N.C. Child reports Henderson County’s food insecurity rate for children was 22.4 percent (vs. 24.6 percent for the state) in 2014. For our total population, Feeding America measures our rate at 11.5 percent, which is an estimated 12,650 individuals.
Individuals or families who live below 200 percent poverty level quality for social services like SNAP (food stamps), WIC (women, infants and children), the public schools’ free and reduced meals program, CSFP (a USDA program), TEFAP (emergency food assistance), as well as local charitable response. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,600 per year; 200 percent poverty would be a family of four living on less than $49,200 per year.
Almost a quarter (24 percent) of individuals who are food insecure may be above the 200 percent federal poverty level and depend on a local charitable response (food pantries, churches, feeding programs, nonprofit organizations) to meet their needs.
In Henderson County, over half of the children enrolled in our public schools qualify for the free and reduced meals program and all of our local elementary schools qualify as Title 1 schools, which is based on the percentage of children enrolled who are in poverty.
It is sobering.
It is why our local response in supporting our local food pantries and backpack programs are so important.
It is also an indicator that students in our local schools need you. Food insecurity goes hand in hand with compromised cognitive development in young children, an increase in behavior problems and attentiveness. Children who are food-insecure have higher rates of illness and higher rates of anxiety and depression and decreased academic achievement. Contrary to what you might think, food insecurity is also tied to childhood obesity because the quality of food is decreased as lower quality food is more affordable.
Years ago, I remember one of our parent educators telling the story of a family she visited. On that day, she planned to work with the baby on fine motor skills development and had a plastic container full of rice for baby to scoop and pick up. When she opened the box and started to play, she noticed the mother seemed uncomfortable with the activity. Upon inquiry, she learned that the family was food insecure and the mother was struggling to see food used for play. Of course, we helped with the problem and made sure the family had what they needed. It was a lesson in sensitivity for us, that a seemingly cheap and available food was not everyone. Our rice was traded for shredded paper.
Our local backpack programs are in full swing now that school has started back. I encourage you to contact school counselors to see how you can help. Many back-pack programs are run by neighborhood churches and charitable groups and I have no doubt every school is served by one, so it should be easy to get involved. We often think of little kids, most commonly served by backpack programs, but counselors at middle and high schools often keep snacks on hand for students they know who come in hungry. Additionally, local food pantries like the Storehouse or Interfaith Assistance Ministries can use your support and donations of money and food to help our friends and neighbors in crisis.
Times-News columnist Elisha Freeman is executive director of the Children & Family Resource Center (www.childrenandfamily.org; 828-698-0674).