United Way of Greater Atlanta engages volunteers during Food Insecurity Week

By Bradley Roberts

Have you eaten breakfast today? In Greater Atlanta’s 13 counties, there are 350,000 children at risk of going without one or more meals each day this summer.

United Way of Greater Atlanta called attention to that issue the week of June 10 with its annual Food Insecurity Week. Monday through Friday, United Way and its partners hosted volunteer events to bring attention to food scarcity problems in our communities and the collaborative work agencies are doing to address hunger over the summer.

The events included projects assisting food pantries, meal packing and working in community gardens. Food Insecurity Week was a way for volunteers to work actively to help support agencies serving meals — the agencies who need it most.

The week was also the kickoff for United Way’s Silence the Growl initiative, which is a summer meal program that helps feed children who are on free or reduced lunch during the school year.

About 25 volunteers from NCR and DeKalb County volunteered at Salvation Army Peachcrest Corps Boys and Girls Club on Tuesday filling snack-packs for the more than 100 children the center provides services for during the summer.

“We have summer programs, and then we are able to offer them breakfast and lunch during the day,” says Giovanni Sturgis, program director for the Boys and Girls Club. “They are here from about 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. They have a quiet room, a game room and a center and activity space for teens.”

This center is in the middle of the 30032 zip code in South DeKalb. That zip code has a Child Well-Being Score of 22.4, and an overall score of 35, which is well below the regional average of 61.8.

United Way saw in 2017 that the zip code a child lived in too often determined the fate of that child. United Way saw that children living a few miles away from each other don’t have the same experience.

While some children come to school rested, well fed and prepared for school, others lack the same access to healthy foods, health care and other community resources.

United Way saw that, statistically, because of what zip code a child was born into, he or she was handed a disadvantage beyond their control. United Way used a set of 14 child, family and community measures to help determine the Child Well-Being Index score for each of the zip codes in the 13-county region.

The previous regional score was 58.9, and United Way recently saw this score improve to 61.8 this year. But there’s still work to be done in DeKalb.

There are more than 10,000 children in the 30032 zip code, and only 14.1 percent of those children are exceeding third-grade reading levels, 10.6 percent exceed eighth-grade reading levels and only about 66 percent of those children graduate high school. The community has a 19.2 percent unemployment rate, and 53.3 percent of the families are not financially stable.

“We are at the bottom,” says Sturgis. “We are one of the lowest.”

But Sturgis, and other community organizers like Aaron Johnson, of Urban League of Greater Atlanta, are actively working to climb out of this hole.

“A lot of the issues have to deal with education,” Johnson says. “I’m familiar with this area because of the advocacy I’ve done for this community. I do a lot of work presenting in DeKalb, making sure that people are aware of the growth and impact we are making.”

Johnson is a career and employment specialist. He works with the youth who age out of Sturgis’ Boys and Girls Club. These young adults range in age from 18-24, and they could be seeking a number of services — Johnson’s helped them apply for GED courses and industry certifications.

But mostly, he helps them “understand their why.” The why behind the work they are doing. He tries to show these students that the work they put in today will help them in the future and that “it’s important to care about tomorrow, today.”

On June 11, a pair of Johnson’s students joined in with the volunteer group from NCR. They helped pack snack packs with nutritious items that went into to brown paper bags that would go home with Sturgis’ students — they joined Nickki Garcia, who works in the finance department of NCR.

Garcia was coloring the outside of the bags, scribing messages to the children who would later take them. The event was the first volunteer event she had participated in since she moved over to the company nine months ago.

“I want to leave here today with a sense of being a part of this community, and just becoming aware of the issues and [child well-being] scores that are relevant to this community,” she said.

Sturgis’ program helps feed the children during the summer, but he also helps them feed into their community, as well.

“I’ve started to a create a music and arts department here,” Sturgis, who moved in the past two years from Cleveland, Ohio, says. “We’ve started a music program for them, and we have a learning center that focuses on education enrichment. We also have cooking classes and a garden club. We’re trying to teach them everything they need to know so they can grow and make their own food.

“Every day during the school year, that one meal they get may be the only meal. I didn’t think too much about that before coming here. I guess I’m learning along the way with these kids.”

Click here to learn more about Silence the Growl — learn more about how to support programs that combat food insecurity by visiting unitedwayatlanta.org.