- Associated Press - Saturday, August 9, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama has one of the highest percentages of children who don’t always know when their next meal will be served.

Officials call this being “food insecure,” and the term applies to nearly one-third of Alabama’s 1 million children. The rate among children is higher than that of the general population.

And it’s a problem, despite significant increased federal spending on food assistance in the past 10 years.

“There are folks who are right above the qualifications for food stamps or free and reduced meals, but they don’t have enough to not be food insecure,” said Kristina Scott, a member of the Ending Child Hunger Alabama campaign. “They are the working poor. They are the most food insecure - those who are right above the cutoff.”

The campaign, based out of Auburn University, is trying to raise awareness about child hunger - and lower those percentages.

“On any given day, most people in Alabama know when and what they will eat when they wake up in the morning and at night for dinner,” Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey said. “It’s an automatic. Imagine if that security went away.”

“The reality is that children in our state, in our own communities, neighborhoods and schools, live like that every day. But we can do something about it.”

Ivey is from Houston County, where in 2012, 17.1 percent of the population was food insecure. She is spokeswoman for the campaign, launched last year.

By 2020, the group wants Alabama to be in the top one-fourth of states with the lowest food insecurity rates. Ending Child Hunger Alabama has multiple goals, including strengthening the network of community organizations that provide food to children when their families cannot, and increasing those families’ economic stability.

The group has increased the number of federally supported sites that offer meals to children in the summertime by about 274 to 926 in the last year. Helping families with long-term economic stability likely will be a bigger challenge.

“Right now, we are focused on feeding children,” said Harriett Giles, a member of the task force and managing director of the Auburn University Hunger Solutions Institute.

A few years ago, only about 10 percent of children who received free or reduced lunches during the school year were getting the free summer meal programs, Giles said.

Giles describes food insecurity as a hidden hunger because people don’t always look hungry or struggling. And those who are struggling don’t always qualify for help, despite more aid coming into Alabama.

Over the past 10 years, the number of Alabama households receiving federal food assistance more than doubled to about 418,000. Federal spending also more than doubled to $109 million, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources’ latest numbers, from May.

In north Alabama, the number of households receiving federal food help about doubled in the last 10 years. In Madison County, it nearly tripled from 6,607 to 17,957. The dollar figure rose from $1.3 million to $5.1 million.

While a lot of that can be blamed on the economy, other factors were in play, DHR spokesman Barry Spear said. A food program for those over 60 and with no income was created. There was outreach to let people know they qualified for assistance. And the dollar amount increase includes cost-of-living adjustments.

“Mostly though, I think it is attributed to the downturn in the economy,” Spear said.

But food insecurities still exist, despite the increased federal spending, for several reasons, Scott said. She is a task force member and executive director of Alabama Possible, a nonprofit dedicated to poverty issues.

People who receive aid commonly called food stamps don’t always get enough to buy their household sufficient food for the month, Scott said. And then there are those just above the qualifying marks.

Eligibility for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is limited to households earning no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline. In 2012, the TimesDaily reported households of four people must earn a net income of less than $1,863 per month to receive assistance. In May of that year, recipients received an average of $127.

A lot of times, that’s just not enough, Scott said.

“Most people who try to (live on a SNAP budget) as an experiment find it difficult and hard to get an adequate nutritional diet out of that,” she said.

“It is very difficult for a person to make it through a month on a food-stamp budget.”

Educators see that struggle in their classrooms.

Janet Womack, superintendent at Florence City Schools, said her system has seen an increase in the number of free and reduced meals served in the past five years.

“It corresponds with what we’ve seen in the national economy,” Womack said.

In the 2011-12 academic year, Alabama’s public schools served almost 37 million breakfasts. Eighty-three percent of those, about 30.5 million, were free to students, based on their family income. Another 6 percent were at a reduced price. Of the 90 million lunches served, 64 percent were free, 7 percent were reduced.

She said the district and state have realized the importance of serving that food.

“Those are the meals they have during the day,” she said.

Meanwhile, churches and community groups have stepped up with backpack programs that provide some students in need with food for the weekends.

Womack said schools don’t just teach academics, but have to meet the social, developmental and physical needs of students, including making sure they’re fed.

“That’s our job,” Womack said. “Students who have a full belly learn better. We know that.”

She said teachers and principals do a good job of identifying needs and finding resources. She said she thinks they will have to do more of that when students return to school later this month.

More than 2,000 Shoals jobs have been lost in recent months.

“We’ve watched as a number of manufacturing plants in the last six months announce closures,” Womack said. “Families may start the school year this year without a job.”

While serving the immediate need of children is one of the goals of Ending Child Hunger Alabama, the long-term solution lies in a better-educated workforce and more and better paying jobs, Scott said.

“Our median household income is low,” she said. “We need families to be earning enough money to be self-sufficient.”

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Information from: TimesDaily, https://www.timesdaily.com/

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