On Feb. 15, dozens of volunteers packed granola bars, water, soup and other items into hundreds of plastic bags at a site at First Baptist Church in Mooresville for Food for Days Backpack Meals Ministry.
Every now and then, a parent drops off a few cans of fruit or a box of Pop-Tarts at East Iredell Elementary School, which counselor Chante Vaughn places on shelves in the school’s food pantry.
And on weekend mornings, Pastor Thomas Young usually opens the doors of Cochran Street Bible Church to serve grits and eggs or other meals.
It’s all done to prevent one thing: the pangs in the stomach of a child who hasn’t eaten.
One in five kids in Iredell County -- more than 8,500 -- go at least occasionally without enough food.
That’s according to 2015 data reported by Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit network of foodbanks. Children are more likely to go hungry than the county’s population as a whole.
Nationally, 6.5 million children in 2016 were food insecure, defined as not having access at all times to enough food for a healthy life, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
Not all of the 8,500 food insecure kids in Iredell are getting the assistance they need. The Iredell County Department of Social Services says about 6,200 children currently live in households receiving Food and Nutrition Services benefits, or food stamps. The amount of assistance a family receives can vary wildly.
The rest -- about 33 percent -- probably don’t qualify for food assistance programs, Feeding America says.
The result: children who fall between the cracks, who may rely on schools for breakfast and lunch but go without on weekends and during the summer months.
HEALTH, GRADES & CRIME
“The impact of a lack of food? Physically, your stomach hurts,” says Tonya Reid, lead social worker for Iredell-Statesville Schools. “So if you have a baby with a hurting stomach sitting in the classroom, you know very little learning is happening that day. We need them ready to learn and that means having some food.”
Kids who don’t eat enough are less likely to graduate, she says. Other effects can include a compromised immune system and mental health issues.
Mark Wellman, assistant principal at East Iredell Elementary School, agreed.
“I truly believe that if you’re hungry, you can’t focus on the academic, social or emotional reactions you need to be focused on in a school setting in order to be successful, period,” Wellman said.
It’s not just schools that see the impact. Earlier this month, Reid went to the first meeting of a new group called Church and Police Coalition. There, Statesville Police Chief Joe Barone said many younger criminals report having to commit crimes in order to get money to eat.
“How do we not meet those needs? We’re the richest country on earth,” Barone said at the meeting.
And Pastor Young, also at the coalition meeting, said children flock to church when he makes meals or snacks available -- but it’s hard to keep up with the demand for food.
Tina Gobble pushed a large blue bin down the halls of Cloverleaf Elementary School on Feb. 16; a fourth-grade assistant following with a bin of his own. Both containers were filled with unassuming plastic Walmart bags tied shut.
But it was what was inside those bags that lit up the faces of several kindergarten and first-grade students as Gobble handed them their bags at their classroom doors.
More than 40 Cloverleaf students get a food bag every Friday, the school said. The bags have simple meals like cereal, juice and canned food that will last until school breakfast on Monday. The bags are provided by either Second Harvest Food Bank or Food for Days Backpack Meals Ministry.
Those groups are just a few in Iredell that say they are trying to take a bite out of the hunger problem.
“Regardless why a child finds themselves in a position with food insecurity, I want to help. I want to motivate others to help,” said Karen Swan, Food for Days executive director.
Food for Days, based in Mooresville, got its start in 2010. Its weekend bags each have two lunches, dinners, breakfasts, drinks and snacks.
Currently, 405 kids in 14 schools are signed up to get a bag every Friday, Swan said. There are three schools on the waiting list that are looking to start getting bags for about 100 more students.
“We’re just scratching the surface of students in need in Iredell County,” Swan said.
One of the limiting factors, Swan said, is funding. It costs $250 ($7 per week) to provide bags to one student for a full school year, and sponsors are in short supply. The group doesn’t get government funding and relies on community donations.
Donations can be made at www.foodfordays.org. Statesville fire stations also have bins that collect donated food items for the organization.
FALL BETWEEN THE CRACKS
According to Feeding America, Iredell County has an $11.7 million food budget shortfall. That’s the total amount of extra cash that food insecure citizens in the county report needing each year to be able to buy just enough food.
Those who see the problem first-hand are clear: More needs to be done to feed the county’s children.
“Being in a school setting we get to hear and see and we know how important their bags are,” Reid said. “But we’re not getting everyone because we don’t know everyone. ... Some are not getting food by way of public assistance and others they are not managing what they are getting.”
And others may go without food because of drug abuse or mental illness in their families, neglect, temporary economic hardships or other reasons, Reid said. Sometimes, a parent may not know how to cook inexpensive meals and their budget dries up.
Ann Simmons, an agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Iredell County, says she has offered classes to help parents “select and prepare healthy foods on a budget.” She also teaches food preservation to adults and youth through the extension -- but usually classes are only held when a group requests them.
The Iredell County Health Department works with local farms to give away fresh produce as part of the Share the Harvest program. They gave away 17,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables to families in need between May and October last year.
Iredell schools that don’t get meals from Food for Days might work with local churches to make their own bags, or start their own food pantry. East Iredell Elementary School does both, Wellman said.
During summer, when schools don’t give out breakfast and lunch, hunger gets worse, Reid says. There are a few locations in the county that offer food through the federal government’s Summer Food Service Program, but not enough, she said.
It seems no matter what, there are kids who fall through the cracks.
“Put your mind to the thoughts of those that don’t have,” Reid said. “You don’t need to do a whole lot. But if everybody out here took a little part, helped a little -- my goodness, look where we’d be.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Percent of Iredell residents without food security
Percent of Iredell children without food security
Percent of Iredell youth living in poverty
Percent of Statesville youth living in poverty
Percent of students in Statesville on free or reduced lunch
Iredell students getting weekend meals through Food for Days
Iredell children receiving Food and Nutrition Services benefits
Iredell children without food security
Pounds of fresh produced collected in 2017 in Iredell for Share the Harvest program
Backpack meals Food for Days provided in 2015
Children in the U.S. without food security
Iredell County annual food budget shortfall in dollars