CORA’s food pantry distributed more than 227 tons of food this past fiscal year to Chatham County, NC individuals and families who are thrust into crisis because of job loss, illness, loss of domicile, loss of breadwinner or other serious hardship. Such circumstances are all too commonplace in Chatham County. The demise of the local furniture, textile and poultry industries, and the difficulties experienced by local farmers and small businesses as a result, have kept demand for assistance high since 2007. Currently, 12% of Chatham County citizens (more than 9,100) live in poverty (www.feedingamerica.org).
According to the Chatham County Schools nutrition office, 4528 (50%) of Chatham County’s public school children received free or low-cost meals at school this year through the federal school lunch program because their families live at or near poverty level, an increase of 17.4% since 2010. Qualification for the federal program depends on a family’s income compared to federally determined poverty levels for different sized families. For example, current poverty level in the US is $24,300 annual income for a family of four. Families who qualify for the school lunch program can earn up to 180% of poverty level and still qualify for low-cost meals for their children. In many cases, these families can be classified as the working poor – employed at the best jobs available to them, but still not making enough to cover all expenses for the family, especially when unexpected expenses arise such as major car or home repairs or medical bills. Food industry workers, those with seasonal jobs, day laborers, even some education and health workers are just a few examples of workers in this category. 90% of Chatham County children in the federal program receive meals free of charge, meaning their families live at or below poverty level. Children in the federal school lunch program have no reliable replacement for school meals during the summer.
Through the SNACK! Program (Summer Nutrition Assistance for Chatham Kids) CORA Food Pantry has furnished increasing numbers of these children since 2009 with food to replace the meals they would have gotten had they been in school. Studies as early as the 1960’s have shown that poor nutrition is detrimental to learning ability. A 2010 Feeding America study on hunger and education indicates that “a child who is unequipped to learn because of hunger and poverty is more likely to be poor as an adult.” Federally funded summer feeding programs that require dispensing prepared meals from a central location are not practical here during the summer when school buses are not available. Chatham is a very large county – more than 700 sq. miles – and transportation is often difficult for low-income families whose children need this food support. When funds are scarce, parents too often choose food based on low price and not nutrition content. SNACK! provides healthy and appealing food to these children so that they are alert, healthy and ready to return to school in the fall. By improving access to proper nutrition over the 10 weeks of summer the SNACK! Program can help us change the life trajectory for Chatham County children.
SNACK provides food for 10 meals each week for 10 weeks to enrolled children increasing each child’s opportunity for optimum mental & physical development. SNACK! 2017 will run from June 12 – August 18. All children in the federal school lunch program during the school year in Chatham County are eligible. In order to minimize transportation difficulties, food is distributed from 13 locations scattered around the county. Clients collect food from their site of choice on a bi-weekly basis. After having success with a test site in 2015, we implemented client choice at all of our distribution sites in 2016. Instead of prepacked boxes of food for each child, client families and children are able to choose items cafeteria style in many food categories and also bag their own groceries making them more active participants in the process. This paradigm also serves better all families from different ethnic and cultural groups with distinctly different food preferences. Because we have successfully operated a client choice pantry for more than 26 years, we know that this is a more respectful, helpful way to provide food to those in need. For 2017 we will continue to offer client choice at all of our distribution sites.
Children receive enough food at each visit for 20 breakfasts and 20 lunches plus milk, juice and fresh fruit – enough food for two meals per day plus daily healthy snacks, Monday through Friday for two weeks. In 2015 CORA began working with nonprofit Farmer Foodshare to provide fresh produce instead of several canned items. (Farmer Food Share connects local farmers with organizations who want to provide fresh food for constituents at fair prices for both parties. For more information on Farmer Foodshare, go to www.farmerfoodshare.org.) Food is delivered in bulk to the distribution sites, manh of which are neighborhood churches, and set up cafeteria style by site volunteers who ensure that foods chosen for children are in the appropriate mix and quantity for 10 healthy meals per week. Foods available for choice include whole grain cereals, 2% milk, canned chicken and tuna, spaghetti and sauce, dried beans and rice, a variety of canned vegetables, fruit, soup, stew and pastas, individual chocolate milk boxes and juice boxes. Fresh produce for 2017 is planned to be green beans and potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes, yellow squash and zucchini, sweet peppers and onions (depending on local availability) apples and bananas. More than twenty Chatham County organizations are working in cooperation in 2017 to provide food to children in the SNACK! Program including Chatham County Schools, the Department of Social Services, Farmer Food Share, West Chatham Food Pantry, Pittsboro Kiwanis, Sprott Youth Center and ten Chatham County churches.
SNACK began in 2009 with 120 children served. For each of the past three years we have served more than 1000 children. We have changed our menus to increasingly healthy fare, from “pop-top” meals to low-salt, low-fat, low-sugar canned fruit and vegetables, minimally processed staples such as rice and oatmeal and added increasingly larger amounts of fresh produce including most years one watermelon per family. The change to client choice allows families to select foods that will more likely be enjoyed by family members increasing consumption and improving nutrition. We currently serve about 25% of those children eligible. Compared to our regional food bank’s summer food program (serving 15% of those eligible) we are doing well with our outreach, but we would like to do better! If you have or know children in the federal school lunch program in Chatham County, or children who need extra food support during the summer school vacation, please contact CORA Food Pantry at 919-533-9521, leave your name and phone number, and someone will return your call to talk about enrolling them in the SNACK! Program.