Life with Gracie: If school is out, hungry children need our help

For at least the past five years, I’ve dropped in on nonprofits trying desperately to make sure metro Atlanta’s children don’t go hungry during the summer months.

And each time, I’m horrified and saddened by what they tell me.

Partly because when I think of children, I usually envision them playing, laughing and dreaming about their future. Not worrying about where they’ll get their next meal. It’s hard to fathom that even a small smidgen of them might not have food to eat and are bent over with hunger pains in a region and country as rich as ours.

But it happens in some of the unlikeliest of places — our suburbs — and if you believe a recent Feeding America report, DeKalb County is in the top three nationwide when it comes to the number of food-insecure residents — more than 146,000 at last count. Of those, 41,630 or 1 in 4 children are considered food insecure.

Here’s why you should care:

“Food-insecure children are more likely to have their overall health as fair or poor versus excellent or good,” said Danah Craft, executive director of the Georgia Food Bank Association. “And according to Attendance Works, poor children miss four times more school than their middle-class peers.”

Providing kids lunch during the summer months, Craft said, helps ensure they’ll go back to school healthy and ready to learn, and that benefits all of us.

But Craft worries that a huge number of children who get free or reduced-price lunches during the school year will go hungry this summer, partly because there is little public awareness that summer feeding programs exist and partly because parents don't know where the sites are and which are closest to them.

Nearly 65 percent of Georgia’s students receive free and reduced meals. Of those, only 15 percent supplement those meals in the summer, meaning 85 percent go without when schools shut their doors.

Thanks to a $1.4 million funding grant from the Arby’s Foundation, it’s an issue she hopes the association will be able to overcome.

Last year, Craft said the association’s eight member food banks and other nonprofit partners served 137,000 children. She hopes to increase that number this year.

Last summer alone, the Georgia Food Bank Association operated 2,180 sites and served 9.8 million meals across a 29-county area that includes Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb counties, where there were 254 sites operating.

“That’s nearly 12 percent of the statewide total, but all of the sites could take more children,” said Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Kids will get the same meal they get during school. No registration, no ID is required. They just show up and eat. Some of the sites will offer programming, like an hour of reading. Some are in parks. Some in area churches.

Some locations will serve breakfast and lunch and others just lunch. All of them will remain open until school resumes in August.

The YMCA of Metro Atlanta is also participating in hunger relief efforts. Branches that will serve lunch at sites throughout their communities include the Northwest Cobb Family Y, McCleskey-East Cobb, Ed Isakson/Alpharetta, G. Cecil Pruett Community Center, and Cherokee Outdoor facility.

Beginning June 2, parents can find out where Georgia food bank sites are located by texting "foodga" to 877877. A GPS-enabled map will also be available at www.georgiafoodbankassociation.org.

The biggest need is in predominantly poor, predominantly African-American counties, but don’t be turned off by that.

“The vast majority of our clients have someone in the house who is working,” Waide said. “The problem is they are not earning enough to take care of themselves completely. We have a job and income problem, not a problem with people’s will to work.”

Here’s a couple of things to keep in mind, Craft said: “If we don’t do this for these children, the cost of educating them will be higher and the health care costs will be higher and their educational attainment will be compromised. This is a great investment for children.”

Here in Georgia, nearly 65 percent of students receive free and reduced meals during the school year. Sixty-five percent. That’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, families are just as poor in the summer, and children are just as hungry.

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