Empty Plates

As Frederick County Confronts Childhood Hunger, is Enough Being Done?

By Sherry Greenfield | Photography by Tuner Photography Studio | Posted on 11.18.13 – Feature, People & Places

It’s an early Saturday morning at the Brunswick Food Bank and people wait patiently for free bags of cereal, muffins, soup, peanut butter, pasta and other foods. It’s a friendly place as volunteers load up bags and chat with the familiar faces that show up monthly for the necessities they need to feed themselves and their families. For those that can’t afford to purchase food, it’s a sense of relief and security knowing their pantries will be stocked for another month.

For Stephanie Windsor, the Brunswick Food Bank is the lifeline she needs to keep her four-year-old son, Christian, from going hungry. Currently without a job and transportation, Windsor, 26, says she needs the food bank to provide her son nutritious and healthy meals. “It’s very important,” she says. “I will do whatever it takes to feed my son. I walk these bags home going up hills, but I will do whatever I have to do.”

“I will do whatever it takes to feed my son. I walk these bags home going up hills, but I will do whatever I have to do.” – Stephanie Windsor

Windsor is not alone. More than 50 million Americans are struggling with hunger, according to Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity. That’s one in six of the population, including more than one in five children. In the world’s wealthiest nation, more than 16 million children in America live in households struggling with hunger, the organization estimates. Most everyone is familiar with the television commercials depicting starving children from around the world, and the advertisements asking for donations.

But here in Frederick County, despite all the new upscale development, shopping and restaurants targeted to the affluent and those that can afford it, is a segment of the population also struggling with food insecurities. Frederick is considered one of the wealthiest counties in Maryland, with a median family income of more than $80,000 a year in a population of 238,345 people, according to The Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs, a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 to provide assistance to the poor. But in January of this year alone, food stamps were handed out to 10,725 people, 8,837 of them were children, an increase of 8.2 percent over January 2012. “People are trying to make ends meet,” says the Rev. Brian Scott, the organization’s executive director. “They look for food stamps and access to local food banks. Many are struggling.” Sara Ryan, development manager for the coalition, says the most troubling cases involve children. “They are just so innocent,” she says.

“They look for food stamps and access to local food banks. Many are struggling.” says Sara Ryan

After working four years as a civilian project engineer on the construction of a new embassy compound in Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, Corey Hill returned home to Frederick in 2010, and found himself unemployed. Hill had a three-year-old son, Shemiah, to feed. “His mother was in the military stationed in Iraq, and we both came home hoping everything would fall into place,” says Hill, 40. “But the economy was bad and we found ourselves in a situation with our home going into foreclosure. We hung on for as long as we could, about seven months, but we needed assistance.” Hill turned to the Religious Coalition for help. “The people were really nice,” he says. “They helped us out with lodging and food stamps. I was really impressed and grateful they were there.”

Hunger’s Affect

The physical effects of chronic hunger due to a shortage of food intake can be detrimental to children. Because childhood is a crucial period in human development, long-term hunger creates problems that can last into adulthood. “More and more research shows that when children are not receiving the right nutrition that they are at a risk for learning disabilities,” Amy Goldsmith, registered dietitian and owner of Kindred Nutrition LLC in Frederick, says. “They find it hard to pay attention and it’s almost impossible for them to retain information.”

Goldsmith says many of her patients living on a limited income have adopted unhealthy eating habits because they can’t afford more healthy alternatives. In an attempt to stretch their budgets, they skip meals, purchase foods with lower nutritional values, and frequent fast food restaurants to feed their children. As a result, she says she sees children that are both malnourished and obese because they are eating the wrong foods.

“From my experience, low-income families are willing to learn,” she says. “It is just pivotal that they get the education.” says Amy Goldsmith

Goldsmith works with families, teaching them how to eat healthy on a limited food budget. She credits many fast food chains that now offer healthy alternatives and nutritional information to allow customers to better decide what to eat. “From my experience, low-income families are willing to learn,” she says. “It is just pivotal that they get the education.”

Determining the exact number of children struggling from hunger in Frederick County is tricky. Some officials point to the number of students receiving a free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch in Frederick County Public Schools, to determine that exact number. According to Frederick County School Superintendent Theresa R. Alban, 10,000 of the 40,000 students enrolled in the school system— 25 percent of all students—are receiving free or reduced-price meals. Alban considers the numbers a significant concern. “That’s one-fourth of the student population,” she says. “It’s a challenge we face as a school system. It tells us what is going on in the economy.” The numbers could even be higher since parents are required to apply on behalf of their children, she says. “We have no way of knowing if the parents don’t apply.”

The free and reduced-price meals are part of the federal government’s National School Lunch Program. Established in 1946 as part of the National School Act, the program operates in more than 100,000 public and private schools and childcare centers in the country. The federal program provides school children from low-income families with nutritious lunch and even breakfast each school day.

According to the requirements, children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level ($29,965 for a family of four) are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level ($42,643 for a family of four) are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay the full price. The number of students participating in the free and reduced-price meals in Frederick County Public Schools has increased over the past five years, according to Judith Gordon, senior manager with the school system’s Food Service Department. During the 2007 and 2008 school year, 15 percent of the students received free and reduced-price meals. That number increased to 18 percent in 2008 and 2009, to 21 percent in 2009 and 2010, to 23 percent in 2010 and 2011.The current 25 percent of the students in the program include 8,553 receiving free meals and 1,656 getting reduced-price meals.

In Frederick County, Hillcrest Elementary School has the highest number of students on free or reduced meals. Of the 890 students, 783, or 88 percent, receive free or reduced-price meals, according to numbers from the Maryland State Board of Education.

But Gordon points out that compared to other counties in the state, Frederick County numbers are considered low. For example, in Baltimore City, 85 percent of the students are on free and reduced-price meals, according to Advocates for Children and Youth, a state organization that evaluates the effectiveness of programs and policies for children in Maryland. In Prince George’s County, 60 percent of the students are on free and reduced-price meals, according to the organization’s numbers. “I know we’re considered on the low end if you look at the state of Maryland,” Gordon says.

In Frederick County, Hillcrest Elementary School has the highest number of students on free or reduced meals. Of the 890 students, 783, or 88 percent, receive free or reduced-price meals, according to numbers from the Maryland State Board of Education. Of those 783 students in the program, 692 receive a free lunch and 91 pay a reduced price. Hillcrest is followed by Lincoln Elementary School in Frederick, with 409 students, or 81 percent, of the 504 total student population on free or reduced-price meals. Of the 409 students, 378 receive free meals and 31 pay a reduced price.

“When you’re looking at a school with 900 children, 88 percent is a lot,” says Kathy Swire, who served as principal of Hillcrest Elementary the past five years, before transferring to Myersville Elementary School in July. “I feel like [those families not in the program] are likely in the working-poor level, but they just don’t qualify.”

Swire says all students at Hillcrest, regardless of income, receive a free breakfast in the morning. “Because of the poverty level [there] everybody eats a breakfast,” she says.

The student population at Hillcrest Elementary is overwhelmingly Latino, with many living in the large apartment complexes off of U.S. 40 in Frederick. Swire says it can sometimes be difficult convincing these parents to apply. “Some parents have filled out the paperwork before and they understand the process, and some are uncomfortable filling out the paperwork,” she says. “They know their child will benefit, but [a sense of pride] keeps them from filling out the paperwork. There is really nothing we can do. We try to persuade them, but it’s absolutely their choice.”

Swire says all students at Hillcrest, regardless of income, receive a free breakfast in the morning. “Because of the poverty level [there] everybody eats a breakfast,” she says. “They all have the opportunity to eat breakfast. Everybody gets it, regardless of their status.”

Hillcrest also provides students with nonperishable food each weekend. “We do have a weekend backpack program with donated food from various organizations,” Swire says. “We reach out to families, and if we notice their children coming in a little hungry, we send them home with bags of food.” Education officials contend that no student will go hungry while in school.

“If they don’t have lunch money and they don’t have a lunch, we’re not going to let them sit there and go hungry,” says Steve Lockard, deputy superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools. “There are a lot of people in the cafeteria during lunch and they will notice.” As the former principal at Brunswick and Tuscarora elementary schools, Lockard says he always kept a stash of food in his desk for a hungry student.

Getting Help

The good news for families in Frederick County struggling to feed their children is that there are numerous programs, agencies and organizations to help. “If you’re hungry in [Frederick] city, it’s because you’re living under a rock,” says Arnold W. Farlow, executive director of the Frederick Rescue  Mission, a Christian-centered ministry that provides food and services to low-income men, women and children. Located at 419 W. South St., the Rescue Mission last year served 148,000 free meals in its dining hall, Farlow says, many to children.

From January through June, the Rescue Mission served 74,472 meals, according to its August numbers. The mission also distributed 237 boxes of food, which fed 653 adults and 520 children. Through its “Grocery Aisle,” which allows people to come in and pick up free food, 30,887 people were served.

WIC, a free health and nutritional program that assists low-income women, infants and children, has made it its mission to reduce childhood hunger in Frederick County. In April 2010, WIC participated in the Governor’s Partnership to End Childhood Hunger summit, held at Frederick Community College. “This summit was to bring local community programs, like WIC, and church or faith-based organizations together to address the issue of child hunger and to network together,” says Katie Keirle, WIC’s outreach coordinator. “At the hunger summit, we set a goal of ending child hunger by 2015.”

Since the summit, WIC has not only been referring people to local food banks and the school system’s free and reduced-price meals program as ways to reduce hunger, they’ve been marketing their own work. “We have also been going out into the community by attending all different kinds of health and community fairs so people can meet us and know how WIC can help them if needed,” Keirle says. “The more we let families know what help is available to them, the better chance we have at reducing child hunger in the county.”

WIC serves approximately 4,550 pregnant women, infants and children under age five, each month, by providing them money for health screening, breastfeeding support and nutritious food. But there are income eligibility guidelines.

“For a family to be eligible for our program, their income must fall at or below 185 percent of the United States Poverty Income Guidelines, which is currently set at $42,643 for a family of four.

“The majority of the families who come to us for help are working, but they are underemployed, including those families with dual incomes,” Keirle says. “For a family to be eligible for our program, their income must fall at or below 185 percent of the United States Poverty Income Guidelines, which is currently set at $42,643 for a family of four. Many people have misunderstood that WIC is a welfare program and that people receiving WIC benefits are not working, but that is truly not the case. WIC is a health and nutrition program that is here to help our hard working families with a little extra support, while also helping to provide supplementary nutritious foods.”

Approximately 260 families turn to the Brunswick Food Bank to feed their children. Located in the Bethany House at 111 First Ave., it’s one of eight food banks in Frederick County. Its pantry is stocked with everything from nonperishable food to toiletries. The program receives 32,000 pounds of donations a year, including 4,500 pounds collected by Boy Scouts during their annual canned-food drive in November.

Coordinator Sandy Cox is the familiar face people see when they walk through the food bank doors. With boundless energy and a friendly smile, Cox greets each person, making sure they leave with enough food to stock their shelves. Whether it’s an extra package of English muffins or a carton of milk, Cox makes sure every man, woman and child receives enough to eat. But behind her friendly demeanor, she has concerns. “What worries me is will they be able to break the cycle and will something happen in their cycle to allow them to be self sufficient?” she asks. “It would be great if we didn’t need this.”

Working today as a plant engineer with a company in Thurmont, Corey Hill says the help he received to feed his son, Shemiah,was priceless. Hill advises others to do the same. “There is really no reason for somebody to go hungry in Frederick,” he says. “Don’t be ashamed. A lot of people in the country are facing difficulties through no fault of their own. Get back out there and get engaged. There are people that can help you.”