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Saturday, June 26, 2010

One Small Way that Hungry Children Are Being Fed this Summer in WNC

A recent article in The Smoky Mountain News highlights the issue of child hunger in western North Carolina. Of the 700,000 children in North Carolina who qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year, only 53,000 (about 8 percent) get free meals during the summer, said Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator.

The United States Department of Agriculture reimburses approved programs $1.85 per breakfast, $3.25 per lunch and 76 cents per snack for children to have free and reduced meals during summer programs. But nonprofits, schools or other programs have to be in charge of preparing the food and keeping up with the paperwork required for reimbursement.

Should parents and guardians be the ones responsible for making sure that children are fed? Of course. But it doesn't happen in all families, for a variety of reasons. In the meantime, the schools have access to funding, as well as the facilities and equipment to do it, along with detailed knowledge of which children need the help. If the schools and counties work together with local service agencies and churches during the summer, perhaps they could come up with solutions on how to help parents take on this responsibility once the school year resumes, so that by next summer children's meals are taken care of by their parents. In the meantime, children are going hungry this summer.

Programs are underway in Haywood, Jackson, and Swain counties to increase the number of children who are being provided nutritious meals this summer in the event that their parents don't (or, more likely, can't) give them three squares a day.

In our neck of the woods, Jackson and Swain County Schools have picked up this ball and are running with it. Both counties have meal programs and are looking to double the number of children fed from last summer. Any child up to age 18 can simply go during the right time to an open meal site and get a free meal, no paperwork necessary. (Proof of lower-income status isn’t required in counties where more than 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunches during the school year.)

In Jackson County, the school system and the churches are joining forces to make sure that hungry children eat. Led by pastor Jeffery Vickery at Cullowhee Baptist Church, volunteers deliver lunches to children at four free meal sites in the Tuckasegee, Cullowhee and Canada communities every weekday this summer to expand the reach of the program to more remote areas. Pastor Vickery met with school officials to determine which areas had the poorest children and estimated the number of meals to prepare based on how many kids get off at nearby school bus stops. Staff at Smoky Mountain High School prepare the lunches, meeting strict government guidelines.

Swain County Schools will offer breakfast and lunch at the Swain Middle School cafeteria seven weeks during the summer in a program operated by the schools food services department. Haywood County is getting the food to its kids via the summer day camp programs operated by the county parks and recreation department.

The lone holdout is Macon County Schools. In Macon County, 66.6 percent of the 4,239 students enrolled in public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. There are no programs in place to ensure those 2,825 children get good nutrition during the summer. Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator, told The Smoky Mountain News, “They just haven’t stepped up to the plate.” On the bright side, they do have a new high school basketball coach, and there is a brisk program of building new school facilities, so the superintendent has been doing something this summer. It's unfortunate that new building programs don't feed hungry children during inconvenient times.

However, even in the counties where the school superintendents have assumed the responsibility to feed hungry children in the summertime, there are those kids who fall through the cracks.

If you think there aren't hungry kids in the summer in western NC: the lifeguards in Jackson County see it every day. My son, Brook, is one of the lifeguards. Staying in Cullowhee to attend summer school at WCU, this future teacher is receiving an education far beyond anything he has learned so far in the air-conditioned classrooms on campus.

Brook can tell you about children who are dropped off as soon as the swimming pool opens, with $1 or some coins in their hand, and are picked up at the end of the day when mama gets off from working a low-paying job. Mama thanks God for the county pool because the summer camp is too expensive, she can't afford a babysitter at her house, and she doesn't want to leave her child at home alone all day. But if she doesn't go to work that day, she can't pay the rent. If not for the county pool, her child would stay home alone all day.

The kindly pool staff asks a hungry child with little or no money do a small chore of some sort, then gives him lunch at the pool store "in appreciation" for helping the lifeguards. His dollar and his work buys him a decent amount of food for his lunch, regardless of the fact that the dollar would have bought only a pack of crackers OR a Coke. A little boy keeps his dignity without going hungry, and a young lifeguard and schoolteacher-to-be learns the importance of the social services that his taxes support. He now sees that while adults might argue the politics of "handouts" and "welfare," for a hungry child, it means simply that he gets to eat when all the other children do.

Brook says to me, "Mom, I've never seen such an economically depressed place." He's led a sheltered life, going to high school in Connecticut. It's surprising to him to see life in the mountains beyond the boundaries of WCU and away from the privilege of Highlands. But it's good for him to see this before he becomes a schoolteacher. He needs to know how much families in poor areas depend on young people like him to do everything they can to ensure a brighter future for their children.

I'm proud of him for not condemning the mamas who drop off the children and go to work cleaning other people's houses. He realizes that no lunch was packed probably because the food that would have been sent for lunch, if there is any, is being saved for supper. It's nearing the end of the month and the food stamps have been spent. He knows that only a dollar or a few coins were sent because that's all the mamas have after paying for gas to get to work, but it's important to them that they send their child with something, anything. They press those coins into their children's hands and thank God for the county pool. Then they go off to work.

Brook understands now why his mother says that public education is, for poor children, a matter of economic life or death. It has changed his perspective and made him more determined to be the best teacher he can be.

Dr. Monica Henson Bomengen is a native of Hayesville who now lives in Highlands and runs an educational consulting company, Schools21 Dr. Bomengen is an alumna of Western Carolina University and former principal of Highlands School in Macon County. Her son Brook is the fourth generation of the family to attend WCU, and the third generation to go on to work in the public schools.

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