Nonprofits fill gap for food insecure

Posted March 13

Three days without school means three days stuck at home. Three days of relaxation. And three days, for some, without consistent access to food.

For students in the Triangle who are classified as food insecure — meaning they are receiving free or reduced lunch benefits — canceled school means no breakfast, lunch or after-school snacks.

In mid-January, a winter storm hit late on a Thursday night, leading officials to cancel school for the next two to three days in most school districts in the area. And again on Feb. 15, most districts canceled school for one day and delayed school the next due to ice and snow.

Even though the main roads were clear and dry, rural roads and shady areas kept buses from getting to all students, and the schedule wasn’t back in order for most students until Wednesday.

“If it’s not safe, we can’t do it,” said Jeff Nash, spokesperson for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. “The first day is always easy — it’s snowing, you cancel school, no one complains. It’s those second, third and fourth days.”

Food insecure students can receive meals for free or at a reduced cost at school, but they might not know where their next meal will come from at home. During a winter storm, that concern is heightened, especially during those second and third days when parents might return to work and not be able to provide meals at home.

The food insecurity problem

In Orange County Schools, 42.48 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals, said Valerie Green, who works in the district’s Child Nutrition Office. At Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, those rates range from 20 percent at Carrboro High School to 40 percent at Frank Porter Graham Elementary in 2013-14, according to data on the district website. And in Wake County Public Schools, 34 percent of students receive free or reduced-cost meals, according to data on the school system’s website.

The problem is that school systems are unable to do anything for students who might go hungry when school is canceled.

And although about 30 to 40 percent of students in the listed school districts receive free or reduced-cost meals in their schools, that doesn’t necessarily mean all of the students buy their meals at school. Some are embarrassed or shy and instead go hungry at school breakfast or lunch.

Green said at Orange County Schools, officials see pretty good participation among students in the breakfast, lunch and after-school snack programs.

But on a snow day, there’s no chance to participate.

Venturing out in the storm

So, nonprofits step in.

PORCH, a local nonprofit, brings food and money for food to pantries, families and schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area — serving 10 food pantries and 322 families every month. TABLE, a nonprofit based in Carrboro that focuses on getting food directly to children, feeds 500 children a week — delivering 16,000 pounds of food to children in need every month, according to Ashton Chatham Tippins, TABLE’s executive director.

While the schools can’t do much to help hungry students when school is canceled, organizations and nonprofits in the Triangle try to push through the ice and snow.

Susan Romaine, the co-director of PORCH said the late January storm definitely threw a kink in PORCH’s usual plan for the week. The organization usually delivers about 1,200 bags of food every month, in addition to fresh food deliveries to families. But the storm delayed their porch pickups, when the organization collects most of the food.

“We basically cancelled our neighborhood food drives, which would’ve been on Monday during the storm, because bottom line, we need to put safety first,” Romaine said. “In order to do PORCH pickups, it would mean a neighbor having to walk up icy steps or across icy sidewalks.”

Romaine said PORCH decided to supplement fresh food deliveries, which were canceled, by mailing grocery store gift cards to the families that would’ve received the fresh food.

“Believe it or not, we still ended up with 500 bags of food that was distributed to all of the food pantries on Thursday,” she said.

The schedule was thrown off, but TABLE was still able to get food out as scheduled during January’s storm, Tippins said.

“We continued on with our programs and were able to deliver on Thursday afternoon so kids did have enough for the weekend and hopefully helped a little those days that they were off,” she said.

She recalled a time when a storm did affect TABLE’s food delivery and the organization had to adapt.

“We started delivering food as soon as it started snowing, so we sent out staff, volunteers and interns to try and get that food out so the kids had food for their break from school.”

Inclement weather plans

In North Carolina, one can never predict what the weather will be like — it can be snowy one day and sunny the next. Organizations that bring food to hungry people have to adapt quickly to the changes in weather in order to help people in need.

“You can plan, but you have to adjust to what you’re doing,” said Stacey Yusko, executive director of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Meals on Wheels.

The program — which serves homebound residents in the area, not children and families, and as many as 170 people per day — prepares for inclement weather starting in November, before the south gets too cold.

Yusko said the organization delivers two meals that will last for a few months to every person in November — just in case. And as inclement weather approaches, Meals on Wheels delivers extra meals the day before the last day drivers will be able to deliver.

“If you want to take this last little blast as an example, we delivered double Thursday, did not deliver on Friday and were back to full strength on Monday,” Yusko said.

But not every hunger-fighting organization has a plan in place. PORCH will try to continue to supplement if the organization is unable to get food to the families it serves in future inclement weather this season, Romaine said.

“We’re hoping for good weather, but should we get some more icy conditions, when the roads are dangerous for traveling for our volunteers and for the recipients of the food, we’ll do a similar plan,” she said. “We’ll still go ahead where we can collect a few bags, but we’ll supplement the food that the families don’t get with gift cards.”

Tippins said TABLE doesn’t have a set plan for inclement weather, but it’s something on the list of things to accomplish.

“We try to pay attention to the weather ahead of time, especially around this time of year, and see if there’s snow that is expected and pay really close attention to it,” she said. “Then, if at all possible, we’re going to try to get the food out earlier so that the kids do have food when they are out of school.”

School administrators just have to hope the weather clears quickly and students can get back to school safely — back to regularly scheduled meals.

“If (school buses) can’t get around, vans full of food probably can’t either,” Nash said.

Paige Ladisic, is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism on the editing and graphic design track and political science. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel and will be an online production intern at The Charlotte Observer this summer. She reported this story as part of the UNC MediaHub. She can be reached at

Lina Sandoval is originally from Cúcuta, Colombia. She has studied 4 years of Journalism and communications and has a concentration in Political Strategic Communication and International Journalism. She reported this story as part of the UNC MediaHub. You can reach Lina at


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