The closing of schools across North Carolina was a significant blow to economically disadvantaged parents concerned about how to feed their families. But through strong partnerships and dedicated staff, local N.C. Cooperative Extension centers were crucial in addressing child and family nutrition issues throughout the state.
The hunger relief effort was unprecedented in Wake County, the state’s largest school district. Here, 51,000 or 32% of public schoolchildren qualify for free and reduced breakfast and lunch. N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Wake County Center, along with a whopping 55 food security partners and community leaders, distributed nearly 8 million meals at 212 distinct locations between March 2020 and January 2021.
Those 153,279 boxes and bags of food included produce, pantry items and frozen meals. Meals were delivered through 46 school curbside pickup sites, 46 big bus food trucks and 120 community distribution sites like the Raleigh Dream Center, Kirk of Kildaire’s Western Regional Food Alliance, Pine Acres Community Center, Carver Center and the Northern Community Food Security Team.
Preparedness and actively nurtured partnerships enabled a rapid, coordinated response when the pandemic hit. In 2018, Extension helped implement a strategic plan in collaboration with Wake County leaders and the Capital Area Food Network to address ongoing food insecurity challenges in Wake County. The county hired a food security manager, Sydney Kline, who, working as a part of N.C. Cooperative Extension, helped cultivate the partnerships that were indispensable to the emergency response. These included schools, food banks, faith-based groups and service organizations.
Working with the schools is nothing new to Extension in Wake County. Extension’s Wake staff oversee the summer food program. In many counties, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summer feeding program for public school students is administered by the school system. In Wake, however, it is orchestrated through a coordinated effort led by Extension through the food security manager, with the support of a full-time AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America focused on building capacity across the community.
“It is a privilege to be working on something that you feel like is making a difference in a community,” said Katherine Williams, Extension director in Wake County. “I am proud of our Extension staff, humbled by the volunteers and really grateful for the school system’s shared leadership in this effort,” says Williams.
Montgomery County, where 74% of students receive free or reduced lunch, is an example of one of the many vulnerable rural North Carolina counties where Extension helped tailor a response to pressing needs. It stepped up an ongoing mission to address hunger, in which Extension’s Montgomery County Center had an existing partnership with Communities in Schools Montgomery County (CISMC) to deliver bags of food from a community warehouse to the local schools as part of the Backpack Pals program.
During a typical week, Backpack Pals provides one bag of food per student on Fridays to help families through the weekend. With schools closed, volunteers picked up and delivered extra meals to area families. CISMC was able to distribute 12,000 meals from March through December of 2020.
In Wake, Montgomery and beyond, economically disadvantaged families in all North Carolina counties are experiencing additional financial pain due to job furloughs and layoffs. As the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic continues and needs grow, N.C. Cooperative Extension will continue to lead, just as it does year-round.