KINGSPORT — Second Harvest Food Bank hosted its annual Hunger Forum at its future Kingsport facility Thursday to bring greater awareness to hunger in the local region and the ongoing work to curb it.
The forum’s focus on hunger among children and seniors in the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee coincided with a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released Wednesday that identified children as the largest “food insecure” population group in the nation and seniors among the groups at greatest risk.
Rhonda Chafin, the food bank’s executive director, said the report shows the level of hunger is remaining steady, with Tennessee ranked 17th in the nation in hunger, one in five people in Northeast Tennessee living in poverty and two in five Northeast Tennessee children who may not have enough to eat.
Chafin said she thinks nightly about how the food bank’s new 100,000-square-foot building and the 15 acres that surround it can be used to better meet the need for food in the region and what will be needed to fulfill the facility’s potential. “We need community members. We need community leaders. And we need legislators,” she said. “We need people to speak out and let our legislators know we need a strong farm bill and we need a strong hunger-relief act.”
Addressing the need for food among area children, Bonnie White, coordinator of the Johnson City Schools’ homeless program, reported that the program served 505 homeless and at-risk students last school year, up from 186 children in 2003 when she first came to work for the program. While Johnson City is considered one of the region’s more affluent communities, White said the city has three homeless shelters, places where up to five families all live together in two-bedroom trailers, and families who sleep in cars and in tents.
“We have children who sleep in a different place every other night because their relatives can only afford to keep them one or two nights a week. They are couch surfers, and when they leave school they do not know where they are going to go that night,” she said.
Among her more disheartening chores, White said she sends notices to teachers asking them to watch for children who come to school Monday weak and sluggish because they have not had anything to eat over the weekend, children who cannot do their work because they have not had proper nutrition and children who run to the food lines at meal times and linger near the lines when their meal is finished.
One of her most rewarding chores, she said, is her ability to include those children in the food bank’s Food for Kids program through which volunteers discreetly provide for more than 500 Johnson City students with child-friendly, take-home packs of food every other Friday throughout the school year.
“Those food packs are like prizes for these kids. Coming to pick them up is their favorite time of the week. And to give them that prize is something very special for the volunteers,” she said. “We need to tell the community this works. It improves nutrition. It improves grades. It improves attitudes and behavior. And it’s only $93 to sponsor a child for an entire year.”
Margo Seay, national volunteer director for AARP, said through its partnership with NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, Bristol Motor Speedway and local Food City stores, AARP helped raise more than $30,000 for the food banks in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia during the past two race seasons. And this month, through its partnership with Walgreens stores across Tennessee, it hopes to raise about $50,000 to divide between the state’s five regional food banks. Starting Sunday and through Sept. 15, Seay said the stores will be collecting food and money for the food banks and challenged everyone interested in fighting hunger to visit Walgreens and make a donation.
Sept. 11 will be AARP’s Day of Service at Second Harvest, and Seay invited the community to join AARP members in volunteering at the food bank’s current location at 127 Dillon Court in Gray.
Thursday morning’s forum kicked off a month-long roster of hunger awareness activities planned by the regional food bank during the Feeding America food bank network’s Hunger Action Month. For a schedule of events, visit www.netfoodbank.org or hungeractionmonth.org, or call the food bank at 477-4053.