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Community organizations work to tackle child hunger at schools

Published: Jul. 13, 2021 at 8:15 PM CDT
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GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Every day, one in four children in Mississippi faces hunger. That sobering statistic comes from Feeding America, one of the many organizations working to end hunger in our nation. Numbers from the school lunch program illustrate how widespread the nutrition gap is in our state.

For the 2019-2020 school year, the United States Department of Agriculture said Mississippi had approximately 357,000 children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, or about 74% of children in participating schools.

However, the need extends beyond the regular school day, so with a mission to tackle child hunger, Feeding the Gulf Coast created the backpack program.

“It was around 2019, Feeding the Gulf Coast child nutrition department and United Way, Kathy Springer actually, went out the school to have a meeting with the counselors to identify what was going on and the need that was there,” said Lana Martin, Feeding the Gulf Coast Child Nutrition Program manager.

Martin and Kathy Springer, director of the United Way for South Mississippi, found dozens of students miss meals outside of school at Nicholson Elementary School in the Picayune School District.

“With Nicholson and United Way, we were able to do our backpack program, which is a weekend program when children are not in school to kind of cover that weekend for them and to meet that need of hunger,” Martin said.

The mission starts at the Feeding the Gulf Coast warehouse in Mobile, Alabama. From there, food boxes are packed and loaded onto trailers for distribution to seven counties in South Mississippi. It takes $135 to feed one child every weekend for the 34 weeks of the school year. The United Way covers that cost for more than 100 students at the elementary school.

“In the country, we live in no child should be hungry, and unfortunately, there are some children that are hungry,” Springer said. “So we want to make sure that our children are well-fed, get the nutrients they need grow and grow their brainpower and be a success in school.”

Springer said food insecurity grows far beyond one school or one community. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, from 2017 to 2019, 15.7% of Mississippi households didn’t have enough food to get by. Of that, 6.2% were considered “very low” food insecurity levels, which are multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns.

“Food insecurity is something this United Way is very passionate about,” Springer said. “During COVID, we held several mobile food pantries with our partner Feeding the Gulf Coast, so not just in this elementary school.”

“What we’re doing and partnering with others is very impactful, and it’s needed because the statistics have basically raised after the pandemic, so it’s needed,” Martin said.

Though the need seems to grow every day, Springer and Martin agree every time food goes to children in need, the community becomes stronger.

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