April 3, 2015
by Josh Blair

Walking into Food Bank for the Heartland, the food bank in charge of hosting the 2015 Rural Child Hunger Capacity Institute Launch meeting, I felt overwhelmed and nervous. Overwhelmed by the fact that I was about to be in a meeting for two days with twenty participants from twenty food banks who care deeply about the issue of rural child hunger and nervous because the issue is dear to my heart and personal narrative.

I grew up in a family experiencing poverty in Eastern Kentucky and have deep ties and feelings toward the poverty Appalachia faces. My family faced many barriers that so many children and families face today: lack of adequate transportation, living in a food desert where it’s often several miles to a store, the long distance between home and a food pantry, and the stigma of being labeled as poor from the small community in which we lived. I have strong memories of feeling isolated from the rest of the world and even stronger memories of the stress my parents faced. The nervous feeling I experienced was one of fear, as I know how tough the issue of rural child hunger can be.

 My nerves and fear were quickly quelled however when I first met with the participants. I became confident in their expertise and passion. At our initial dinner together – where participants were already beginning to discuss their barriers to and strategies toward addressing rural child hunger – I had a cathartic moment. The overwhelming feeling I had started to transition into a resounding faith in the Feeding America network’s ability to face rural child hunger and the nervousness changed into extreme optimism in this group of engaged and dedicated food bank staff.

As the meeting unfolded, the barriers my family experienced were discussed. How do we transport food to children and their families? How do we get clients to places where they can pick up food? How can rural communities get beyond the stigma and realize there is hunger where the live? Additionally, there were discussions focused around food bank strategy for rural child hunger. How do food banks logistically and efficiently get food to children and their families when they are sometimes nine hours away? How do food banks conduct outreach in communities where many may not realize there are children and their families facing hunger?

While the answers to these questions were not fully answered, I can say that the group of food banks participating in the Rural Child Hunger Capacity Institute are committed to continuing this conversation for the next year. In one session, over 80 ideas and strategies were shared in thirty minutes. In another session, over 100 hundred documents were exchanged between the participants. Over the course of the year, we will be covering a range of topics pertaining to rural child hunger, such as partner capacity, moving meals to remote sites, increasing transportation logistics and program outreach. Additionally, there will be special funding for select food banks to execute pilots for innovative strategies defined over the first half of the year.

One topic that will be covered over the next few months will be the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which is scheduled to be voted on in Congress this upcoming fall. Federal child nutrition programs are critical to preventing child hunger across America and serve as a main strategy for a number of food banks targeting child hunger in rural areas. Nationally, only about 16 percent of children who get lunch assistance during the school year participate in a summer food program on a typical summer day. Congress can do more to close this out-of-school gap by enabling community-based organization to utilize more options to reach children during these times – such as through meal delivery programs, backpack programs, or providing families with a grocery card during the summer months. The examples are all strategies used by food banks addressing rural child hunger and making sure that congress passes a strong child nutrition bill in 2015 will be a priority of the Capacity Institute.

If the meeting is any indication, the year ahead for the Rural Child Hunger Capacity Institute will be productive, creative, collaborative and intense. Thank you to our Mission partner, C&S Wholesale Grocers, for providing the funding for the Rural Child Hunger Capacity Institute, as the next year will be instrumental in deepening the work food banks are doing to provide food and assistance to children and their families who are experiencing hunger in rural areas.

*Josh Blair is a program capacity associate at Feeding America.

Tags: Fighting Hunger in Action , Child Hunger

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