Cathy Culbreth, a single mom, works part-time and is bound for graduate school, but she struggles to feed her family.
Fortunately, her daughter is enrolled in Reaching All Minds, an after-school program in Durham that provides children, and frequently their parents, with a nutritious meal each day. Reaching All Minds is one of the 26 Kids Cafes supported by the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. Meals are provided during after-school care, relieving the pressure on some parents to provide healthy meals with little money.
"It's one less thing I have to worry about," Culbreth says of her daughter eating a good meal before coming home.
Fifty million Americans face "food insecurity"—defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a lack of consistent access to enough nutritious food. Food insecurity can manifest itself in many ways: Families might reduce the size of meals, leaving children hungry and undernourished. Or they could supplement their meals with cheap, unhealthy foods—fast food, for example—instead of fresh produce.
Households with children are particularly vulnerable. In August, Feeding America, the national network of food banks, released a study analyzing child food-insecurity rates by state, county and congressional district. The report is part of its larger Map the Meal Gap project, which studies local levels of hunger and food insecurity.
The study determined that in North Carolina, more than 603,000 children under age 18 are experiencing food insecurity—27 percent of all kids. The state ranks 11th in the worst child food-insecurity rates.
This is due in part to North Carolina's rural background, explains Gideon Adams, outreach evaluation program manager at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. It provides food for more than 800 agencies—pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other programs—in 34 counties.
The other factor is the state's unemployment rate, which is hovering around 10 percent; but in some areas, such as Scotland County, 17 percent of adults are jobless.
"There's been a large increase in unemployed individuals," he adds, "and underemployed individuals who in the past have not needed assistance, now needing assistance."
In February, Culbreth lost half of her unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. She says she has had a hard time stretching her benefits to last two weeks, much less the full month.
"I'm trying to do something to better my life. My unemployment was cut, my food stamps were cut," she says. "I'm working to get myself off the program and am just having a temporary setback."
Trinity Pellas is a social worker at Hunter Elementary School in Raleigh, which distributes 40 backpacks to families each week. While the food banks and other organizations provide the food, the social worker and teachers determine which children have the highest need. When a teacher comes to her and says a student is not doing well in class, Pella asks, "Is the kid eating breakfast? Is the kid getting enough food?"
When children are hungry, Pellas says, "They stop paying attention in class, put their heads down, act out.
"Food is one of the basic needs," she adds, "and if they don't have it then it doesn't matter what you're trying to teach them."
Last year Hunter Elementary had 42 applications for 35 backpacks. This year, the applications have doubled to more than 80, but only 40 backpacks are available. "I've seen requests go up from once a month to about 5 to 10 requests a month for extra food," Pella says.
Federal food assistance can't keep up with the demand, especially in light of deep budget cuts. "We're very much at a standstill, and we don't need to be at a standstill. The meals gap is getting bigger," says Adams of the food bank. "We're treading water rather than making progress, and it's going to be a harder struggle to solve the problem when we do get moving again."
Programs like BackPack Buddies and the Kids Cafe were created in part to supplement government food assistance. The Feeding America report found that more than a third of children experiencing food insecurity are ineligible for federal nutrition programs. (Undocumented immigrants are automatically ineligible for federal assistance.)
Eligibility is primarily determined by the federal poverty level. For example, a three-person household must earn less than $34,281 a year to qualify for federal benefits such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and the Women, Infants and Children program. This amount is equivalent to 185 percent the federal poverty level that establishes the need for, and level of, assistance. [Editor's note: See clarification at end of story.]
Although Wake County has one of the lowest rates of child food insecurity statewide, it has the highest rate of food-insecure children who are also ineligible for benefits: 55 percent.
One cause is underemployment. "A huge proportion of people are underemployed," says Gideon Adams, "so they might not necessarily fall under eligibility guidelines, but they are still making decisions such as food versus medicine."
This is common. According to Feeding America, nearly three-quarters of households experiencing food insecurity have a full-time worker.
Eligibility for federal assistance also requires having almost no assets. "That's a scary place to be," says Pellas, who has noticed an increase in working-class families struggling with food costs but who are ineligible for federal help.
Many families who need food assistance have never applied for benefits and don't know how to navigate social services or ask for help. "They think they should be able to do it on their own," Pellas explains, "and it's unfortunate because the kids suffer."
Nine kids, all teens, are perched on rickety chairs, water coolers and anything else they've dragged under the awning of the wooden shelter on this educational farm sponsored by the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh. Many of them have just finished working in the field; they grab something to drink while we cool off in the shade.
The teens are apprentices in the Young Farmer Training Program, which teaches teens, particularly those from food-insecure neighborhoods, how to grow and sell food.
They talk about the food they eat at school. "Every day at my school they serve pizza and fries. It's not good food that's available," says a boy named Simon.
One teenager has brought a watermelon and passes slices to the group. "The vegetables are—yeah, they're better for you than cheeseburgers—but the vegetable is not fresh, it's out of a can," he says. "That isn't appealing to me."
They continue to talk about the difficulties of getting enough healthy food. "I know this person's father who works, plus her mother works, and they say that they get too much income to be coming in to be getting food stamps," one girl says. "So they really got to wait a whole month just to get something to eat."
"I think for some reason there's some guilt associated with not having enough food to provide for your kids," says David. "Somehow it makes you look like a failure or something."
Simon agrees. "The ultimate in food security, if you really want to know where your next meal is coming from, and if you will have a next meal, is to grow it yourself," he says. "We grow meals, I guess you could say ... so that hopefully, at some point in the future, if we can't get them somewhere else, we can get them this way."
Clarification (Nov. 23, 2011): The Feeding America report uses statistics from 2009; at that time, eligibility was determined by income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. In July 2010, North Carolina expanded eligibility to households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Visit www.fns4nc.org to learn more about SNAP (or Food & Nutrition Services, as it's known in North Carolina).