Food on the table

For the children: A group of volunteers fills bag with food as part of MANNA FoodBank’s Packs for Kids program. Megan Dombroski
For the children: A group of volunteers fills bag with food as part of MANNA FoodBank’s Packs for Kids program. Megan Dombroski

As Asheville’s rates of hunger increase, local agencies are trying to keep pace. Standing in MANNA FoodBank’s warehouse holding a small bag of groceries, Beth Stahl, the nonprofit’s youth program coordinator, reflects on the value of food to the many Buncombe County children facing crippling hunger.

“It’s kind of scary that this little bag of food can make such a difference for a kid,” Stahl says.

So far this school year, MANNA distributed 90,690 bags, or 259,000 pounds of food, to 3,500 local children through elementary and middle schools as part of MANNA’s Packs for Kids program. Yet, even with all of these provisions, the nonprofit estimates it is only reaching 8 percent of the “food insecure” children in the 16 Western North Carolina counties it serves.

Food insecurity is defined as lacking consistent access to adequate food, according to the Department of Agriculture.

In Buncombe County, more than 10,000 children younger than 18 years old live in food-insecure households, according to MANNA.

A recent study from the Food Research and Action Center placed Asheville as the third-hardest-hit metropolitan area for food hardship in the country for 2011, up from seventh worst in 2010.

“I don’t think MANNA can do everything,” Stahl says. “It’s important that we’re doing something, though. It’s better than not doing anything.”

The students receiving the MANNA packs of food rely on free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs during the week. The bags of food ensure they have food for the weekend.

“We began with a pilot school a few years ago with about 50 kids, and realized that it was such a great manner of direct service to kids that now we’re in 124 schools in our service area,” Stahl says.

For young children, the importance of having enough to eat — and the quality of that food — can’t be overstated. 

The nutritional quality of a child’s diet affects their overall health, notes Ameena Batada, assistant professor of health and wellness promotion at UNCA.

“Developmentally, there can be a lot of repercussions of not having a regular diet, or not having diets that are nutrient dense,” Batada says. “Certainly bone development, muscle development and brain development are all important areas of development that are related directly to nutrient intake.”

These health problems can be long term and irreversible, says Batada, who holds a doctorate of public health in health communication and a master’s of public health in maternal and child health.

“What we’re seeing now, is that chronic disease has a life-course perspective. So what you eat and how you eat when you’re young in life has an impact on your later ability to process insulin or manage stress, or any of these other areas that are related to chronic disease,” Batada says. “If someone who is young doesn’t get sufficient food, they may have developmental and cognitive issues then, but they will also be predisposed to other conditions later in life that they may not have been predisposed to.”

Children living in food-insecure households also may face difficulties performing in school, which Batada says can affect their success as an adult.

“We know that children who have good diets with the right balance of foods are certainly more able to concentrate and focus in school, and ultimately do better,” Batada says. “If they don’t do well in school and they’re not able to secure a good job, they can’t be economically active.”

However, budget cuts at MANNA FoodBank forced Stahl to decrease the average cost per pack this school year from nearly $4 to $1.37 — resulting in less food per child. Working with a registered dietician, she had to carefully plan the new menu to help prevent nutritional deficiencies.

“We always send some amount of protein, always fruit, and always vegetables,” Stahl says. “We try and send some breakfast items. We never send things like cookies or candy. I don’t even do juice boxes because of the unnecessary calories.”

Other groups in Western North Carolina also try to help feed children living in food-insecure households. Volunteers, including children, can make packages of dried foods for hungry children, both regionally and internationally through the local chapter of the international food-aid organization Kids Against Hunger. The Mission Children’s Hospital chapter is run by a volunteer committee that’s part of Mission Healthcare Foundation, according to the foundation’s website.

“We get groups 10 years old and above,” says Rachel Leaptrot, program coordinator for the local chapter. “We get Boy Scout troops, Girl Scout troops, school groups, church youth groups, senior church groups, and employee groups, like nurses from Mission Hospital. We have a wide variety of people who want to get involved and help out.”

The volunteers use an assembly line to create the bags, which contain rice, dehydrated vegetables, soy protein, and a yellow powder with a vegetarian chicken flavoring and 21 vitamins and minerals. The package cooks in boiling water for 20 minutes, and Leaptrot says it tastes better than it sounds.

“At our packaging sessions, we always let people sample, and they’re surprised at how good it is,” Leaptrot says.  “It tastes good, and it’s healthy.”

Each bag costs 25 cents and serves six people. During a two-hour session, volunteers typically put together enough packages for 5,000 to 8,000 meals, Leaptrot says. Half of the bags go to MANNA for local distribution, and the rest goes to other counties.

Besides the direct-food assistance, Leaptrot says the program has other benefits.

“Primarily, we’re providing meals and trying to address hunger, but we’re also giving kids an opportunity to learn about volunteering,” Leaptrot says.

Megan Dombroski is a freelance writer and recent UNCA graduate with a degree in mass communications.

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