Food bank, schools fight to fix increasing child food insecurity

NOW: Food bank, schools fight to fix increasing child food insecurity

COLOMA, Mich. The pandemic has caused many Americans to feel economic pressure through lost jobs, struggle in paying rent and even the fight to get food on plates.

But one population hit hard is children.

Thousands of adults and kids are food insecure in Michiana and this pandemic has not been kind to those numbers.

There are ever-increasing lines outside of pantries and food banks.

But when it comes to kids, the community is stepping up to make sure they aren’t left behind.

"At the food bank, we knew there were hungry people two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago," Marijo Martinec, the Food Bank of Northern Indiana CEO said.

Food insecurity is nothing new for those who work behind the scenes at the Food Bank of Northern Indiana.

"The need has been tremendous. And lots of new people who are entering the charitable food system for the first time," she said. "Not a week goes by where you don't see the long lines and know about it.”

The pandemic has left millions without a solid income.

"So Feeding America, our parent organization, they’ve projected about 50 to 54 million people who are going to be hungry this year because of the pandemic. And because of that very reason. So the need is that great right now, so many people are struggling," she said.

And the food is always “that first thing that goes to pay your other bills," she said.

Meaning some children are going home hungry.

"In the pandemic, what is really awful about it, especially when school's not in session. Some of these kids don't eat," Martinec said. "So in northern Indiana, so we serve six counties, there are about 31,000 children that are food insecure that live in food-insecure households.

Last year 1 out of 6 children were food insecure, because of the pandemic that number is now 1 out of 4 children.

But what is food insecurity?

"That means that these kids do not have enough food to eat, to maintain a healthy lifestyle," Martinec said.

With a problem like this at the forefront, schools all over Michiana are fighting to find a fix.

Like in Coloma, Michigan.

"At some point, you're looking at this money saying what can we do with it. And we decided that we need to start investing some back end giving more food for the kids," Dave Ehlers, the Coloma Community Schools Superintendent said.

Students are getting two meals a day 7 days a week with pickups on Tuesday.

"Right now because it's just the high school, they pick it up in the parking lot. But during the whole time we're down, then we take them by the buses," Shelley Mazigian, Director of Dining Services for Coloma Schools said. "We try to send home meals that the kids can put in the microwave in case parents aren't home. Easy things for them to cook.”

Like other schools in the area, food insecurity is an issue. Right now 70% of Coloma Schools students qualify for free and reduced lunch

"So we're a little higher than some of our peers in the area, but not out of the ordinary in the county now," Ehlers said.

So continuing to still get meals to children is essential.

"If your basic needs aren’t met, you're not going to learn. And so it's important that we make sure our kids are fed," he said.

"You need to, to feed your body and feed your mind to learn it's, it's essential for these kids," Martinec said.

And if schools didn't do this, we might be seeing a much bigger problem.

“I think there'd be a lot, a lot more hungry kids," she said.

The pandemic, a blessing in disguise, shining a light on a bigger problem.

"Hunger has been here, but the pandemic has really exposed it more so that everybody knows that there are a lot of hungry people," she said.

"They're seeing the importance of school plays in that and how helpful we can be in the partnership that we can form doing that together with parents," Ehlers said.

The kindness and community togetherness...

"We could provide a really big meal at Thanksgiving, and we have enough money available now we can provide a really big meal for Christmas," he said.

"We did 420 for the Thanksgiving dinner. We put up the link yesterday for the Christmas one. And when I walked down here, I was up to 297 already," Mazigian said.

Many want to be set in stone even after the pandemic.

"COVID, the pandemic is brought along a little bit of a new perspective of looking out for your kids a lot of different ways. I think it's been good in that terms," Ehlers said.

"Hopefully, once we get back to life, you know, a different new normal that we continue that kindness with one another," Martinec said.

"If all I've ever remembered for around here is making sure that kids were fed, I don't know if that's a bad thing if that's a way to put it," Ehlers said.

“I went home after we were done exhausted, but told my husband that was the greatest feeling I'd had. Yeah, firmly believe one child needs it. I want to give it to them," Mazigian said.

So one good thing has come out of this pandemic, a shining light on the child hunger issue here in Michiana.

All of the folks we spoke to want many of the changes to stay post-pandemic.

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