Six Years After Recession, Many Rural Families Still Rely on School Pantries

Outside cities, child hunger rates are higher and employment rates lag. That’s why school-based pantries are a popular way to feed families.

(Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/Getty Images)

Apr 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Alison Stine lives in the foothills of Appalachia and her work has appeared in The Nation, The Paris Review, The Toast and she is the author of 4 books, mostly recently "Supervision" for HarperVoyager UK.

CHAUNCEY, Ohio—The classroom is large and bright. New shelves line the walls, holding a rainbow of canned vegetables, many organic, and boxes of dry goods. Banners decked with children’s pictures drape from the ceiling. The children have drawn chickens, peas, and broccoli.

And a lot of pizza.

Heidi Mowrey, a school nurse who helps run the Athens City School District Food Pantry, smiles at the pictures. “I asked the kids to draw something healthy. I like to think the pizza at least has vegetables.”

This is not your typical food bank or pantry. It’s open in the evenings, after work. It’s also in a rural former elementary school, where a preschool operates.

Economic recovery has been slow to reach this corner of the country and many other rural areas, where one in four children was living in poverty in 2014 compared with one-fifth of children in urban areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 22 million children in the United States receive free or reduced lunch during the school year, but that number drops to fewer than 2.7 million in the summer, when schools are mostly closed. In-school food pantries are helping to fill this gap by staying open year-round.

Child hunger is persistent while adults are struggling to find work. A 2015 report from the USDA states, “Rural employment in mid-2015 was still 3.2 percent below its pre-recession peak.... In contrast, urban employment rose nearly 2 percent in the past year.” A report released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution said that national employment rates “won’t return to normal levels until the 2020s.”

RELATED: Global Development Report: We Need to Fix Hunger and Malnutrition First

Lack of job growth combined with benefit cuts—more than 500,000 will lose food assistance in 2016 because of expiring waivers—has made food insecurity in rural areas an urgent problem.

The recession isn’t over in Maine, where Shannon Coffin of the Good Shepherd Food Bank says a lot of families “didn’t really know [the recession] even started because they’ve always been poor.” One in four Maine children is food-insecure, which means, according to Coffin, that a family has three days or less of food.

Getting enough to eat is a stressor that forces people to make impossible decisions. Coffin says families “don’t pay the light bill” or ask themselves, “Are we going to buy medicine, or are we going to get food?”

Food pantries can help fill a family’s cupboards, but they’re usually open only during work hours, a problem for those with jobs they can’t just leave. Yet there is a place that many communities are starting to rely on—and not just to educate their children: schools.

Kate Pauly of the Food Bank of Iowa describes schools as “a hub for the community in rural areas.” The idea to start food pantries inside schools evolved out of the work teachers were already doing: stocking classroom cabinets with peanut butter, crackers, and pretzels. Coffin said, “Teachers have been doing makeshift programs, funded completely alone, buying at full retail value, because they can’t stand kids not having food.”

The schools in Athens County, Ohio, would send children home with food for the holidays, but loaded backpacks proved too heavy for kindergartners to carry, and according to Kim Goldsberry, president of the Athens City School Board, who helped start the pantry, “It was hard for kids to get the food home inconspicuously.”

They needed a way to help children without stigma—and to help families too. The solution was a pantry inside a school, where students didn’t just pick up snacks but their whole family had access to staple items such as bread, milk, and eggs.

“We’re looking to serve the whole family,” Coffin says, “ ’cause if there’s one child in the family hungry, there are others. There are likely hungry parents, and we’re finding there’s hungry grandparents too.”

Communities are welcome at school pantries, where they’re often given cookbooks, shopping guides, and cooking lessons. Athens County also has a school garden, where the community can pick vegetables and fruit.

Another benefit of school pantries? Coffin says they are “improving [teachers’] relationships with some of the families they’ve had the hardest relationships with.” When the school is a source of support, when families start to trust the school, “it starts to change that dynamic.”