By Riley Manning
So often, the issue of childhood hunger seems half a world away, but a First United Methodist Church Sunday school group has found food insecurity is affecting children right in Tupelo’s backyard.
Cathy Grace, a member of the group, said they became concerned for students dependent on school-provided meals when they read in the Nov. 17 Daily Journal about drastic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
With the number of Tupelo families receiving SNAP benefits on the rise – 19.6 percent of Tupelo families currently, twice as many as three years ago – ultimately these measures trickle down to affect students.
“It might be a surprise to anyone outside the education system that we have this problem,” Grace said. “But as an educator, you can see kids come in on Monday morning and eat that cafeteria breakfast like they’re starving.”
The group worked with an assistant superintendent for Tupelo Public Schools, Diana Ezell, to survey the principals of the pre-K through fifth-grade schools, and determined about 150 students live in a food-scarce environment. For these students, the long stretch between Friday’s lunch and Monday’s breakfast can be detrimental for many reasons.
“Basically they are distracted because they are hungry. They can’t concentrate,” Grace said. “We especially want to meet this need now because the academic rigor students undergo is becoming more intense.”
With the help of the church’s Helping Hands food pantry, the group has secured prices with a food supplier that would provide a child with cereal bars, Pop-Tarts and one microwaveable meat dish for $3 per child per weekend. The food would be purchased monthly through the church, and packed and sorted by Helping Hands volunteers each Thursday. Friday mornings, school volunteers will pick up the foods and discreetly distribute the packages to students by the end of the day.
“It’s definitely not a full weekend’s worth of meals,” Grace said. “But at least it’s something they can eat to keep that gnawing feeling away.”
Grace said for the program to begin in January and last through May, they needed to raise $9,000. While a little over $8,000 has been raised, Grace said more money would make it possible for the group to provide even more food in packages as well as meet the need if more food-insecure students are found.