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Hunger and Rockdales most vulnerable

While more and more people are facing food insecurity, it is Rockdale's eldest and youngest who are hit particularly hard as the economic doldrums drag on.

Feeding stomachs and minds

Rockdale County Public Schools' School Nutrition Director Peggy Lawrence was worried during the recent Fall Break. She knew that for many poor families, long school breaks are a precarious time because a child might not eat much since there may be little food in the home.

"So what we do is really, really important," she said. "I know it sounds cliché, but we can't teach kids who are hungry."

Throughout Rockdale, social service agencies, the government, churches and other advocates are striving to ensure the County's most vulnerable citizens do not go hungry during this economic downturn.

Much like Lawrence, those working daily to be a voice for the issue know that if it is not continually brought to the forefront, those such as seniors on fixed incomes and poor children might miss a meal.

In RCPS, student eligibility for free or reduced-price meals is based on federal criteria for income and family size. Other qualifiers can include whether a student is in foster care, homeless or its family receives food stamp. This school year in RCPS a family of four with a gross monthly income of up to $3,446 might qualify.

Reduced-price meals are 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. Regular-priced breakfast for elementary students is $1 and lunch is $1.75, and for middle and high school students $1.20 and $2, respectively.

Applications for free or reduced-price meals are available in school cafeterias or the School Nutrition office.

Lawrence said some parents are coming to her office to do the paperwork because they do not want their child to know they are requesting help. She also is seeing more grandparents and newly unemployed applying.

This school year, by early November, 63 percent of RCPS students received free or reduced-price meals.

"It's constantly changing because we get applications in every day," Lawrence said, adding that in previous years they even received applications up until the last school week.

Besides providing breakfast and lunch, Lawrence also makes sure through a federally-funded program there are after-school snacks at schools with more than 50 percent of students receiving free or reduce-priced meals. In RCPS, that program now is in nine of its 11 elementary schools.
For example, last year the district served 2.3 million lunches and 87,000 snacks. On any given day, that equals about 19,308 meals.

Homelessness and hunger

For some students, those meals provide stability in numerous ways. Staff in RCPS' Support Services Division knows all too well that families facing food insecurity, or a lack of regular access to food, might also be homeless.

Laura Barnes, Lead School Social Worker and Liaison for Homeless Children and Youth, and Emily Callahan, Case Manager for the Homeless Education Program, work diligently to steer these families to valuable community resources. They are the only RCPS staff dedicated to dealing with homeless issues.

Federal law requires every district to have a liaison that ensures homeless students have access to free meals.
By late September, RCPS had about 130 homeless students. By the 2010-2011 school year's end, 241 students were homeless. The previous school year ended with 188 students homeless and the year before 167 students were homeless.
Callahan said families are being evicted after losing their jobs or their landlord is foreclosed on. Then, hunger issues arise because a family cannot quickly pack up their frozen meats, fresh vegetables and cooking pots. Also, if they move into a hotel, for instance, they have no way to store or cook much food, she said.

So often when she speaks to families, school is at the top of their minds. "They ask, ‘What time is their breakfast or lunch?'" Callahan said.

Callahan and Barnes believe there are still many hidden homeless considering sometimes when they go out in the middle of the day to investigate a case they find a child not in school. School counselors and bus drivers are their eyes and ears.
"They see a lot of things," Barnes said. "I got a call today about a family living in a van. The neighbor told the bus driver."
April Fallon, RCPS Community Support Director, said it is important homeless students have the same teacher and classmates to nurture a sense of constancy. Research shows the longer a student is absent from school, the further they fall behind academically, she said.

"In the midst of a storm, at least they can anchor to a school," Barnes said. "But very few people can focus and learn on a tummy that's growling, so this is the foundation you have to build before a child can be successful in school."

Taking care of the elderly

At the other end of the spectrum, seniors in poverty are also surviving on very little.

Nationally, hunger among seniors ages 50 to 59 has jumped nearly 80 percent since 2001, according to an AARP Foundation report. The study noted that hunger risk is higher for those in the South. This is significant for Rockdale because according to 2010 Census data, the age 65+ population increased by nearly 3,000 seniors from 2000.

Jackie Lunsford, the County's Deputy Director of Recreation and Senior Services, said that in the past few years, in-home service requests have nearly doubled. In particular, Meals on Wheels deliveries are especially sought after by seniors who are home-bound and cannot get to or prepare meals.

The program serves 72 clients on nine routes Monday through Friday. Besides receiving a nutritional, hot meal, personal contact is a valued benefit for the seniors.

"There are a lot of people who've stepped up to the plate" as volunteer delivery drivers, Lunsford said. "But demand is increasing and we're going to have to expand pretty soon."

For information on how to volunteer for Meals on Wheels, contact Volunteer Coordinator Melissa Pugh at 770-278-7263