Despite improvements in the local economy, thousands of Wilkes Countians still live day to day with uncertainty about their next meals.
They live with food insecurity, a complex, typically household condition resulting from lack of access to affordable, nutritious food.
The malnourishment and psychological impact of food insecurity can harm development of a child’s ability to learn, reason, pay attention and other cognitive skills.
In his third year as director of Samaritan Kitchen of Wilkes, Dick Johnston has become all too familiar with food insecurity.
The nonprofit helps ease the food insecurity of about 1,800 Wilkes people per month through its food pantry program.
Samaritan Kitchen also helps keep about 750 youths in the Wilkes County Schools from going hungry every weekend during the school year through its backpack program. The food sometimes is shared by entire families.
Due to a recent reduction in its financial support (about $50,000 less), Samaritan Kitchen itself is experiencing insecurity concerning how well it can meet needs in Wilkes.
The nonprofit recently had to reduce the amount of food clients are allowed through its pantry program by about 30 % and Johnston said it may become necessary to reduce portions of food placed in backpacks for students if the funding shortfall isn’t adequately addressed.
He said food insecurity in Wilkes has been worsened by cuts in monthly benefits provided under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the last couple of years.
To illustrate the importance of the backpack program and hopefully elicit financial support, Johnston shared a letter from a guidance counselor at a Wilkes public school. The letter told about two different households with children in the backpack program.
Portions of the counselor’s letter are as follows: “The first family I would like to tell you about lost their house in a fire…. This family has four children and live paycheck to paycheck…. Obviously, the bags (backpacks) were needed as they lived in a motel until they could find a place to rent.
“Luckily, they found a place to rent (in an adjoining county) that could accommodate their large family. Of course, this disrupted their food stamp disbursement due to the fact that they were no longer in Wilkes County. With losing everything in the house fire, there were multiple demands on the little money that the father was bringing in with a minimum wage job. The mother stayed at home to take care of the 3-year-old.
“The food bags served as a constant dependable food source. The bags were a source of healthy meals as well as tasty treats that sometimes elude families that can’t afford nonessentials.
“The second family I would like to share with you represents a more common household that we see in our county. I have two students who live with their elderly grandparents. Mid-year, the grandparents were asked to care for two more very young grandchildren….
“To further complicate matters, the grandfather is a diabetic and in poor health. The grandmother does work but has limited hours at (a local retailer). The children never missed picking up the Friday food bags. If one was absent or his/her book bag couldn’t hold the bag, the sibling would take it for him/her. They depended on these bags to get them back to school on Monday for regular school meals.
“There are many more stories I could share…. I hope that they can help you not just think about the money and cans of food, but consider the real lives of some of our children. Thank you for supporting our school and our students. The food bags are truly an important tool in serving the children in Wilkes County.”