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.

Food program gives children access to nutritious meals

By Bradley Roberts

Food insecurity is a problem in Greater Atlanta’s 13 counties.

United Way of Greater Atlanta found once summer break starts, many of the more than 350,000 children in the area who participate in free or reduced school meal programs go without breakfast or lunch.

United Way created the Silence the Growl® campaign, which raises funds for partner agencies in the community that already work to combat the summer hunger problem. Through this partnership, Action Ministries and MUST Ministries are able to prepare, pack and distribute meals five days a week throughout the summer.

“It’s a lot, but it is a drop in the bucket,” says Charles Sterne, director of United Way’s Silence the Growl initiative. “Over the course of the summer program that we fund, we are serving thousands of meals.”

Sterne works on the implementation of the grant funding. He works alongside the community partners helping them secure funds that make these projects possible.

“We’re funding [Silence the Growl] and supplementing the existing programs that MUST and Action run,” Sterne said. “They are the ones sourcing the food, and so we don’t actually participate in that.”

The Silence the Growl program started in 2014, but the relationship with MUST, Action and United Way has been going on for much longer.

“The driving force behind this was campaign dollars raised outside of campaign strategy,” Sterne said. “The idea was to find a project that we could raise funds for through crowdfunding. Summer meals was identified as a potential source for that, and the reason they started the program was to address the issue.”

The partner agencies know the communities they serve. These are communities packed with people from Title I schools who benefit from those free and reduced lunches during the school year. These partners depend on large volunteer-run operations to make these meal-packing programs possible, Sterne said.

Yvonne Byars, senior director of volunteer services for MUST Ministries, oversees thousands of volunteers who prepare meals for Silence the Growl recipients.

“The summer lunch program is over the course of nine weeks, and we start that the Monday after school ends and run that all the way up through the last Friday [before school starts back],” Byars said. “That takes volunteers, donors, corporations and families, and they actually donate the lunches.”

Those lunches include a “sandwich, fruit, a salty snack and a drink,” Byars said.

Many of the volunteers will pack lunches in the MUST Ministries headquarters in Cobb County, says Ashley Allen, grant manager for MUST.

“It’s an elaborate web of logistics,” Allen said. “Some of them [volunteers] will color the bags and write something inspirational for the children. It means so much for those kids when they get those lunches.”

Allen applies for grants that support the summer meal programs. She said Silence the Growl has been one of the biggest supporters to make the programs “successful these past couple of years.”

Many of the volunteers will work multiple shifts throughout the summer, Allen said.

“Some volunteers sign up to work on this all summer long, and there are some that have a delivery route and magnets for their car,” Allen said.

Allen said United Way has been key in making the program a success.

Amy Olvey, director of Hunger Relief Programs at Action Ministries, said besides purchase, preparing, packing and serving meals, volunteers will also engage in “enrichment” activities with the kids receiving the meals.

“We have some teachers that will go out and read to the kids and possibly do an art project,” Olvey said.

The children in the community served come from Title I schools, but the meals are dispersed at apartment complexes, mobile home parks and even some community centers in various counties. Action serves more than 15 counties throughout the course of the 10-week summer period, and they’ve expanded the program to year-round in the Atlanta metro area of Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Action also works throughout the year with weekend support food programs at the schools during the school year, Olvey said.

“I think the program is very impactful as far as the nutrition, but also the impact that it makes on the family as a whole,” Olvey said. “These families are working, and when kids are out for school breaks, the [family’s] budget really changes. When you have someone on that tight of a budget and they’ve got a change in those numbers, it can really put things out of whack.”

United Way, its partners and donors understand it is fundamental that a child have access to sustainable, nutritious meals. There are a lot of basic needs, but access to food is essential.

“There’s a hierarchy of needs,” Sterne said. “At the base level, there’s food and shelter, but unless a child is eating well— getting enough food to sustain and eating nutritiously, they are not going to be doing well in school. You’re not going to be seeing positive health outcomes if they are just eating junk food or fast food.
“Access to healthy food and nutrition and not being hungry is fundamental to child well-being. It’s at the heart of it.”