After the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across Georgia to close in March, the Dalton system was one of many districts to deploy school buses to deliver meals to students stuck at home taking classes online.
But this fall, an uneven return to in-person classes leaves stay-home students unable to get breakfast and lunch at their school cafeteria. A food distribution system created last spring when COVID-19 closed schools is now being retooled for new schedule uncertainties.
Meanwhile, parents are trying to get back to work and are stressed for time to stop by school to pick up meals, Dalton schools Nutrition Director Wimberly Brackett said.
That leaves some students with growling stomachs when concentrating on remote digital classes is already hard enough.
“Those meals are not only important for kids’ growth so they can learn and focus on their studies, but also so they can feel a sense of security,” Brackett said. “My primary focus back in the spring when this happened was to find an easy way that we can make kids and families feel secure and take one less worry off of them.”
Public schools, Georgia’s food banks and other volunteers are trying to meet pandemic-related challenges as food insecurity threatens to leave many children without reliable access to nutrition.
According to a report from Feeding America, about 630,000 young people in Georgia don’t know where their next meal will come from. And the collective demand for meals from Georgia’s regional food banks is up 40% over last year.
One in three children now struggle with hunger in the metro Augusta 25-county region that the Golden Harvest Food Bank serves in Georgia and South Carolina, according to Executive Director Amy Breitmann.
Golden Harvest purchased new vans and refrigerated trucks this year and worked with schools and the National Guard to get meals onto tables.
“We really had to pivot in tremendous ways during this pandemic to serve the ever-growing needs of many, many children,” Breitmann said.
After schools closed in the spring, America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia began using local libraries as drop-off points for families to pick up something to eat. In seven months, the food bank distributed over 510,000 meals to children through the grab-and-go program with the help of Georgia National Guard troops and volunteers.
Although the Effingham County school district reopened in August with most students opting to return to the classroom instead of virtual learning, every free meal provided at local libraries was claimed by the end of the day.
This school year’s challenge is making sure the students staying home are still getting something to eat, said Cathy Driggers, librarian at the Savannah-area Rincon Library in Effingham.
“There’s still that need for those kids that are either doing virtual or they can’t get up to the school in the time that they’re supposed to pick up the meals,” Driggers said. “We know that, since we’re able to finish this year out doing this, that we’ll still be able to provide for those families that somehow or another are falling through the cracks even with school starting back.”
Federal meal support ends in December
Food bank directors and children’s health advocates credit the U.S. Department of Agriculture for expanding food stamp benefits for many families and relaxing some restrictions during the public health crisis.
Food banks are usually the first place people turn to when they can’t put meals on their table with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly called food stamps.
In February, Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services issued $163 million worth of food stamps. By June, $300 million went to Georgia families after an additional federal allowance, and since March, the state saw a 35% increase in the number of families on food stamps, DFCS Director Tom Rawlings said.
Like many Georgia school systems, Bibb County School District is using funding for its meal delivery through a special USDA program that ends in December, or until districts spend the existing allocation.
The program allowed Bibb schools to continue delivering 6,000 daily meals to its students as the district continues virtual learning for all students through at least Oct. 30. School bus drivers and the nutrition team work together to prepare the meals that are now offered on Mondays and Wednesdays at school curbside sites and bus stops.
“Simply put, hungry children don’t put learning at the top of their priority list,” said Keith Simmons, chief of staff for Bibb schools. “We want to make sure that we can provide a nutritious meal for our students that supplements the instructional services that they’re receiving that takes care of their social and emotional well being.”
The serious food insecurity suffering among Georgia school students means it’s essential that people support their local food banks and that federal waivers and other benefits are extended for families in need, said Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children.
A child’s diet must include healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein they might not always get at home, she said.
“If you have extra, please, please give because there’s such a need, and advocacy and awareness-raising is critical,” Fener Sitkoff said. “We cannot let up making sure that our state and federal leadership understand how big of an issue this is.”