TV commercials and magazine advertisements portray the holiday season as a chance to indulge in feasts with pictures of lavish food on dining tables, surrounded by family members.
For many, that is not what reality looks like this time of year.
One in five children are at risk of hunger, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit network of about 200 food banks across the United States. While food insecurity impacts children across the country, it has a large impact on children in Alachua County.
About half of the almost 29,000 students in grades K-12 qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in Alachua County. Many of these students rely on these meals to meet their nutritional needs on a daily basis.
This becomes an issue during winter and summer breaks, when school isn’t in session.
A federal program run by the United States Department of Agriculture called the Summer Food Service Program addressed this problem during the summer by ensuring that low-income students received meals when school is out. However, during other extended breaks, like the winter holiday break, these meals are not available.
Alachua County Public Schools partnership specialist Kelley Kostamo said the schools don’t provide breakfasts and lunches during the winter break because school facilities are closed and faculty have work off.
Kostamo said the district partners with a variety of local organizations to collect food and distribute it to students to take home over the break. One organization the county works with, Food4Kids, distributes backpacks filled with food to students to take home for the weekends.
The CEO and founder of Food4Kids, Jennifer Moore, said the organization sends students home with boxes filled with more supplies for longer breaks, such as winter break, which can last up to three weeks.
On a typical weekend, Food4Kids may provide backpacks for about 550 students, she said. During winter break, these numbers increase to about 800 children.
Moore said schools, churches and other community members collect food that is delivered to the organization’s warehouse. The donations are then sorted and placed in backpacks or boxes based on recommendations from a nutritionist in order to best meet the needs of the children.
She said many of these students wouldn’t be able to eat without the donations.
“We definitely have a lot of need,” Moore said. “We aren’t immune to it. Hunger doesn’t see a face; it doesn’t see a race. No one is immune from hunger. It could happen to anyone and definitely to our children who aren’t equipped with the survival skills to change the nutritional resources they have in their home.”
She said the food might not feed children multiple meals every single day of the break, but it still helps students make it through. Kostamo said the donations aren’t able to feed all of the students. The teachers and employees at the school then determine which students receive baskets based on who needs them the most.
“We are just scratching the surface,” she said.
Sometimes it’s hard to be aware of child hunger unless one is personally exposed to it, Moore said. For many of these families, staying fed is just one of their many struggles.
“It’s hard with the economy,” Moore said. “Some of our families are struggling to keep the lights on or to not get evicted next week.”
Yet Moore hopes through her work, she can provide positive memories for children throughout the holiday season.
“It really is the definition of ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’” she said. “The need is there. Once you witness it or know it’s there, it’s hard to turn your back on it. Childhood memories are supposed to be positive, and they’re supposed to be filled with smiles. To be hungry doesn’t elicit that emotion.
To learn more about suggested food donations, drop-off locations or help fund food purchases visit http://www.food4kidsfl.org.
Kostamo said donations for the county’s Holiday Food Drive can be dropped off at Terwilliger and Chiles Elementary Schools, Lincoln Middle or at the district’s main offices at 620 E. University Ave. Money donations or grocery gift cards are also being accepted by the district to purchase the food items.
Checks can be made out to the Education Foundation of Alachua County and dropped off at any of the locations listed above or mailed to:
The Education Foundation
c/o Kelley Kostamo
2802 NE 8th Avenue
Gainesville, FL 32641
Kostamo said the phrase “Winter Break Food” should be included in the memo line. Donations can also be made online at www.edfoundationac.org. under DONATE NOW and “Food Baskets”.