BY AIDAN BRADLEY
News + Record Intern
It’s not uncommon for a child to dramatically proclaim “I’m starving,” but in Chatham County, that same phrase is a reality for nearly one in five …
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It’s not uncommon for a child to dramatically proclaim “I’m starving,” but in Chatham County, that same phrase is a reality for nearly one in five school-aged residents, according to a 2018 prioritization assessment by the Chatham Health Alliance.
The most recent Chatham Health Alliance data shows that 18.7 percent of Chatham child are food insecure, defined as a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life.
Fortunately for Chatham’s hungry children, there are numerous federal and local programs to minimize childhood hunger. Two independent food pantries, Pittsboro’s Chatham Outreach Alliance (CORA) and Siler City’s West Chatham Food Pantry (WCFP), work hard to feed Chatham families. Both have programs to provide children with backpacks of food for the weekend if they receive the free or reduced lunch on the weekdays. WCFP’s program, “Fuel-Up,” and CORA’s program, called “The Backpack Program,” together serve more than 400 students attending Chatham County Public Schools.
Fuel-Up and The Backpack Program operate similarly. Weekly, volunteers report to the designated school to package uniform grocery bags full of nutritious and non-perishable items. There is the occasional piece of fresh fruit, but for the most part, the bags include things like granola bars, pudding, packages of macaroni and cheese, apple juice and other food staples. From there, the programs deliver the necessary amount of bags to schools around the county.
A Volunteer’s Story
Darline Johns, the founder of the North Chatham Elementary School section of CORA’s Backpack Program, shared a touching story after being asked what the most impactful aspect of her work was.
Every Friday morning she gets up and goes to NCES to deliver and distribute the food purchased on behalf of CORA. One day, she was unloading her car after arriving at the school and was approached by a woman. The woman presented Johns with a small sum of change and a baked good.
Describing herself as “very OCDish” when it comes to other people’s food, Johns nonetheless ate the treat.
“It was her way to give back to me for feeding her kid through the year,” she said. “I was just so thankful.”
Six years ago, that very woman’s son shared a kindergarten class with Johns’ son. And after Johns observed the food insecurity that plagued some of her son’s peers — notably this child — she established the Backpack Program at NCES. Without Johns, the program would not exist, or at the very least, it would not “serve as many bellies,” because, as she finds herself telling the curious, “People matter,” and “One person can make a difference.”
The Struggles of Funding
The Fuel-Up program at WCFP has had a similar impact on the lives of community members. But after the pantry lost half of its funding last year, it finds itself struggling to keep Fuel-Up and other programs going. WCFP receives a significant amount of its funding through large grants, but when they disappear — sometimes with no explanation from the grantor — it can severely restrict the ways an agency can provide outreach.
CORA, too, grapples with funding, like any non-profit. But they host many small fundraisers to help them throughout the year. The Backpack Program does not receive any funding from CORA aside from a small start-up fund and the benefits of CORA’s tax umbrella and name recognition.
How Can You Help?
People matter, if they are donating time, money, or food, people matter. Those who are interested in helping do not have to be the next Darline Johns to make a monumental difference in these kids lives. Even the smallest amount of time and effort will go a long way.
“To many of these students the only healthy meals received are at school,” said WCFP board member Diane Smith. “Siler City and Chatham County has continued to see a large number of children living below the poverty level.”
Those compelled to help those in need, namely the children of Chatham County, can reach out to CORA and/or WCFP to volunteer or donate funds.
CORA Food Pantry can be reached at 919-542-5020 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. West Chatham Food Pantry can be reached at 919-742-3111 or by email at email@example.com.