Why are so many Barry County children missing meals?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Many school children in Barry County believed to be at-risk for missing meals at home, take backpacks like these, which are filled with supplemental food items, home for the weekend to help fill in the gaps. A former teacher at the Southwest school district was able to convince Ozarks Food Harvest, a large, Springfield-based supplemental food program that meets food shortage needs throughout southwest Missouri, to provide 60 backpacks a week for students. Contributed photo

Food pantry director: 'I just think education is the answer'

In Barry County, every school district has a backpack program, a supplemental program that provides food for children believed to be at-risk for missing meals at home.

The backpacks, which are filled with food, are discreetly sent home with students selected by teachers every week for the weekend.

Recently, a Southwest teacher helped convince a major supplemental food program, Springfield-based Ozarks Food Harvest, to fill about 60 backpacks at the district. The program also fills about 30 backpacks for the Exeter district, and every other school in Barry County Purdy, Shell Knob, Cassville and Wheaton all have backpack programs.

No child should ever have to miss a meal or be hungry, not for one night, and certainly not for an entire weekend, but the fact that so many are going hungry by evidence of supplemental backpack programs in every school district begets the question of 'Why are so many children missing meals?'

In Title 1 schools and socioeconomic-challenged areas like Barry County where the majority of student populations qualify for free or reduced lunches, many households should be eligible for food benefits, and with EBT benefits, local pantries and other food programs available, why is there no food in the house for these children?

Rebecca Woelfel, communications director for the Division of Family Services, said online statistics show exactly how many families, per county apply for and receive EBT benefits each month.

According to the department's records, for the month of January 2017, 339 applications were received, with 20.5 percent rejected, and 91 applications expedited. A total of 5,829 Barry Countians (2,479 households) participated in the program, amounting to $115 EBT benefits per person, with $675,882 total benefits paid.

In August, 364 applications were taken, with 23.7 percent rejected, and 59 expedited. A total of 5,529 persons participated in the program (2,402 households), averaging $117 in benefits per person, with $649,247 paid.

Whether schools see the issue as their responsibility, or not, educators in every district, along with community volunteers, have taken up the slack by spearheading supplemental backpack programs to ensure children don't miss meals, not only because they care, but also because they know that children can focus and perform much better academically when they have food in their bellies.

So, why aren't parents providing food a bottom line, basic necessity for their children? Is it because they don't understand budgeting, or are making bad spending choices? Drug addiction? Or is it because they are embarrassed to apply for EBT benefits, visit a food pantry, or are just over the line of qualifying for benefits? Or is it the ever-increasing cost of living and the fact that the dollar just isn't stretching that far anymore?

Janet Mills, director of food ministries at United Methodist Church, Cassville, said the reasons could be many.

"It's the choices parents are making and how they are managing their life," she said. "Also, many complain they don't get very much in food stamps, and they say they've been cut back. I think assistance programs are supplemental in nature, and it has to do with the price of the food. The dollar doesn't go very far at the grocery store and doesn't always supply 100 percent of the needs.

"People say 'We receive EBT, but it's only $10 a month,' or an amount that may not be significant enough to offset the needs of the home. With the cost of living, maybe certain families allocate their money toward heat and lights, if you can't even afford to keep your food stored properly. But, you can't dictate how families use their income. That starts with education, like, how do you stretch a dollar, cook the old-fashioned way and make a roast and veggies to last for four days of meals, instead of just frozen dinners."

Mills said local classes and resources are available to help families keep food in the house, such as cooking, budgeting and even ideas for free, family-friendly entertainment.

"OACAC offers life skills classes every month," she said. "The concept is to teach people how to stretch their dollars as far as possible. The MU Extension also has a program focused on helping families eat nutritional meals on a budget."

That program, called Voices for Food, uses sustainable, community-based strategies to improve access of low-income households to nutritious food and increase self-reliance of communities.

The Extension found that 140,000 people in southwest Missouri, including 50,000 children, do not have a consistent, secure source of food every day.

"I just think the answer is education," Mills said. "So many problems stem from bad nutrition, health problems, and a burden on health care. It could be as simple as teaching people how to cook. We all want to work together [as a community] and don't want kiddos to go without basic necessities. It's hard to imagine children having to deal with that [missing meals]."

For more information on food and educational resources, people may call OACAC at 417-847-2140, the MU Extension office at 417-847-3161, the Cassville Food Pantry at United Methodist Church at 417-847-2328, or the Division of Family Services at 417-847-4761.

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