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Natural Awakenings Northwest Florida

Weekend Food Program Nourishes “Food-Insecure” Kids

Dec 03, 2016 06:35PM ● By Diana Pereira

Beneath the beauty of the Emerald Coast lies the unheard cry of many who would go hungry without the generosity of community programs. It’s not the hunger found in Third World countries, but a more subtle kind—the hunger of families who don’t know how they will get their next meal, or who must decide between paying their rent or medical bills and buying groceries.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines this kind of hunger as “food insecurity”—essentially, the lack of “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” The USDA estimates that 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, struggle with hunger on a regular basis. Not every day, but more often than not. Our community is not exempt from this epidemic.

Feeding America, a national network of food banks, sponsored a study called “Map the Meal Gap,” which estimates food insecurity rates for the general population and for children under the age of 18, nationally and in each state and county. Estimates are based on 2011 statistics collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and on food price data supplied by the Nielsen information and measurement company. The study found that 16.4 percent of the population—about one in six Americans—struggles with food insecurity. For children, that number is 22.4 percent.

In Florida, the numbers are significantly worse: some 18.7 percent of the general population and 28.4 percent of children. Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Florida ranks sixth in the rate of child food insecurity. Escambia County ranks above the state average, with 19.3 percent of the general population and 26.6 percent of children. The rates of food insecurity in Okaloosa and Bay Counties are slightly lower than average, at 15.4 percent of the general population and 24.9 percent of children, and 17.4 percent of the general population and 26.2 percent of children, respectively.

“Map the Meal Gap” points out that the lack of adequate nutrition can affect a child’s health, behavior and ability to concentrate in school. While many, if not most, food-insecure children qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs at their public schools, they often go hungry on the weekends and during holiday breaks.

Ludgina Dieujuste, Michelle Abrams,  and Tonia SmithSharon Conner recognized this problem in Santa Rosa County even before those statistics were published. She launched the Weekend Food Program in Gulf Breeze to help feed children who were going hungry on the weekends. This program works with the schools to anonymously identify the number of children each week that are on the free or reduced program.

Every Thursday evening, volunteers pack two breakfasts, two lunches and two snacks, plus a pre-printed notecard with an encouraging message, into plastic grocery bags that are delivered to the schools on Friday morning and discreetly given to needy students to take home for the weekend.

By 2015, the Weekend Food Program was too large to service both Gulf Breeze and Navarre, so Tonia Smith and Michelle Abrams started a second branch in Navarre, solely supported by outside donations and their own funds. They use storage facilities to house the pre-planned seven-week menu items, and volunteers gather every Thursday from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m. in the NYSA gym to pack meals for roughly 400 children. 

Additional volunteers are always needed, especially to deliver the storage bins of packaged bags to each of the six Navarre-area schools participating in the program, Abrams says. The program also gratefully accepts monetary and food donations, as it costs roughly $35,000 a year to provide nourishment for these food-insecure children.

“Roughly $10 per week feeds one child for the weekend,” Smith says. 

Monetary donations can be made online through WeekendFoodProgram.org or the program’s Facebook page. Food donations can be dropped off any Thursday during packaging hours or by contacting Abrams at 229-938-1821. Among the requested food items are full-sized cans of premade pasta with sauce (e.g. Chef Boyardee products), ready-to-eat canned soup, fruit cups, and additional breakfast or lunch foods that only require a microwave and can be heated by a child.

For more information on how to contribute, donate or volunteer, contact Michelle Abrams at 229-938-1821 or visit WeekendFoodProgram.org.

 
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