Tribune-Courier News Reporter
Every day nearly 1 in 5 children in Marshall County go to bed hungry. They wake up hungry. They go to school hungry.
That’s the shocking statistic revealed in the release of a nationwide study called Map the Meal Gap. The study provides data surrounding food insecurity across every county in the country by Feeding America, a network of food banks in the United States.
In Marshall County the most recent data available indicates 18.6 percent or almost 1,220 children have food insecurities. Put another way, their families don’t have the resources necessary to provide access to nutritious food to support a healthy lifestyle.
Melissa Elrod, coordinator of the Marshall County School System Benton-Central Family Resource Center, is not surprised by the numbers revealed in the study. She, along with other resource center employees in the county, help coordinate a take-home snack pack program to provide children who might otherwise go hungry nutritious food items on weekends.
The program was initially developed by the Marshall County 4-H Club more than 10 years ago. As the identification of need grew, the program was taken over by the county’s four school resource centers and has grown to serve hundreds of students each weekend.
“We have hundreds of kids in our county that rely on the Snack Pack Program,” she said. “For some of these kids it gives them an assurance that they are going to have enough to eat over the weekend – this way they don’t have to worry. For others it’s a treat because they might not have access to some of these items any other way. For others it’s more about helping out the parents who need to focus on spending the money on another area – some parents have to pay their bills. It isn’t a choice they make lightly.”
Elrod said students who could benefit from the snack pack program are identified by teachers within Marshall County Schools.
To qualify for the Snack Pack Program a student usually must take part in the free and reduced lunch program at their school, but Elrod said there have been exceptions made if a teacher knows a family needs additional help.
There are more than 340 elementary and middle school students enrolled in the Snack Pack Program, but Elrod said more are enrolled every week.
“We’re lucky to live in a community that’s very willing to donate and I feel like if a family really needed help there would always be somewhere for them to turn,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to think about a child not knowing where they might get their next meal which is why I’m so grateful we have this program in Marshall County.”
Elrod said the Snack Packs Program is dependent solely on donations because the family resource centers are very limited on how much state funding they can use on welfare-type programs.
“That’s why we rely on donations and are so grateful to the churches and various organizations of the community,” she said. “If we used our grant money on the Snack Pack Program it’d be gone within the first few months of school.”
The snack packs are delivered to the classrooms each Friday and Elrod said the items each child receives vary from week to week depending on the donations received.
“They get a little brown paper bag with eight to 12 individually wrapped non-perishable items – it’s always a variety because donations change,” she said. “Of course there are some items that are pretty consistent because they are the items we recommend people donate because they pack better.”
Some of the items in the snack packs include peanut butter crackers, cheese crackers, fruit cups, pop tarts, granola bars, pudding cups, microwavable macaroni and cheese, individual boxes of cereal, instant oatmeal, pretzels and ravioli.
“They get so excited when they see us coming in with the bags – they really do look forward to it,” Elrod said.
Anyone wishing to help with the Snack Pack Program can donate items at one of the family resource centers or make a check out to the Marshall County Resource and Youth Service Centers and take it to the Marshall County Board of Education Office.
Across the state, the Map the Meal Gap study found Fulton County has the highest food insecurity rate in the state, at 23.2 percent. Oldham County has the lowest at 9.7 percent.
To view the nationwide map and learn more about the Map the Meal Gap study visit feedingamerica.org/mapthegap.