Fighting food insecurity in the Northwoods
Vilas County group works to bridge gaps, feed hungry kids
By Laurie Lenten
Numbers can be tricky. Sometimes so much so that no matter how hard you try, they just don’t add up. Perry Pokrandt discovered that firsthand when he started doing the math on children and hunger in Vilas County.
For the retired Perry, who at the time was volunteering at the Vilas Food Pantry, the discrepancies were too glaring and made no sense.
How could it be, he wondered, that the Warm the Children Program* was providing winter clothing for some 550 children living below the poverty level in the county and, yet, the Vilas Food Pantry was only serving 100 children? How could it be that of those 550 children, the Northland Pines School District could only account for 300 of them as receiving free or reduced lunches? Where had all those other children gone?
It was in this gap – the one that lay between the children with food needs that were being met and those whose needs weren’t – that Feed Our Rural Kids, Inc. or FORK, was founded with the mission “To raise money to provide nutritional support to school aged children from food insecure homes within the Northland Pines School District.”
In describing the fledgling 501(c)3 nonprofit organization’s first year, Perry, who is the founder and President of FORK, says it has been an interesting journey, one that he likens to the route taken by the meandering Wisconsin River.
“When we started this journey we thought we had a clear vision of where we were going,” says Perry with a pause. “We were extremely naive and for that I apologize.”
It’s one thing to have a working definition of food insecurity, he says, and quite another to ferret it out in a school district that spans some 474 square miles.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food insecurity falls into two categories with Low Food Insecurity meaning you have food but it’s of a lower quality and lacks diversity; and Very Low Food Insecurity meaning you can’t get food when you need it or you have to eat less because you lack the monetary resources to get more.
Food insecurity, says Perry, is very changeable, can happen to anyone at any time, and cannot be planned for. Typically life events such as the death of a parent, divorce, loss of a job or housing, or a family illness that affects income are what plunge children and families into being food insecure.
These, however, are not typical times.
“No one could’ve imagined a few months ago that we’d be where we’re at today,” says Perry referencing the current economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen record numbers of unemployment claims filed throughout the state and country, as well as inordinate stress being placed upon food pantries and their reserves. Throw statewide school closures into the mix and you have the makings of food insecurity almost instantly overnight.
While the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has granted permission for school districts in the state to continue providing free meals through the end of June, which is typically when summer school would be in operation, and has relaxed its requirements on food being distributed only on school premises; other district programs such as the Backpack Program, which provides supplemental weekend meals for students most in need, are not in operation.
This is one of those gaps that FORK was created to bridge. Through its Meals Now program, FORK has been providing two weekend meals per child in the school food program since mid-March and will continue through June 5. The cost of the 12-week program is approximately $2,000 a week, says Perry.
“The Meals Now program was created to provide meals for children in homes that were experiencing a defined emergency. Prior to Covid-19 we were providing food for a handful of kids each month with an annual program budget of about $2,400,” says Perry. “But when COVID-19 hit we deemed it an emergency and decided to cover the loss of the Backpack program.”
According to Perry, FORK has four distinct food programs that it is currently or will soon be funding, including:
Meals Now – provides emergency food support during difficult times in a child’s life which now includes the COVIC-19 pandemic;
JumpStart – provides vouchers for additional fruits and vegetables for those on the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program;
Emergency Formula Support Program – provides one-time vouchers for baby formula to those experiencing budgetary emergencies; and
FORK Cares, which is FORK’s newest program that will be rolled out in July 2020.
FORK Cares is intended to help alleviate the food insecurity that students often face during the months of July and August when school food programs are typically not in operation. Children whose families qualify for free school meals will receive a FORK Care package once a month containing 12 supplemental meals that will be delivered to the child’s home address. The program will cost approximately $13,000.
Perry says it’s an ambitious program, to be sure, especially since the current uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 has caused FORK to rearrange and/or cancel its upcoming summer fundraising events. Perry says the Brett and Frisk and Friends: A Concert for the Kids event that was scheduled for late May was moved to an online setting, while the 2020 Midsummer’s Night Ride scheduled for August was canceled completely.
“The summer months are challenging during a normal year and this year we have no clue what July and August are going to look like with everything that is going on in the world, which makes this program especially important right now,” he says.
Due to the sheer size of the Northland Pines School District and the transportation challenges many families face, says Perry, FORK made the decision to deliver the care packages directly to families.
“There are so many factors that contribute to food insecurity especially in rural areas and include things like the distances people have to travel to buy food and in many areas the lack of grocery stores. A lot of food is bought at convenience stores which often have limited selections of good foods like fruits and vegetables, and higher prices,” says Perry.
According to Feeding America, the largest food support organization in the country, there are currently 2.3 million households in rural communities across the country facing hunger due to food pantries often being hours away, lower paying jobs, and higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. (www.feedingamerica.org)
But, then, Perry knows the statistics well. When asked to describe what hunger looks like in the Northwoods, he says, “It looks like the person sitting next to you at the hockey game. It looks like your neighbors, your friends, your family. No one walks around with a sign on their back saying ‘I’m hungry’.”
In fact, he says, pride is often what keeps people from seeking help. Pride coupled with not knowing where to turn for help means many often go without the food they need and are eligible for. “There is a definite stigma attached to not having enough food. People don’t want others to know that they’re struggling,” he says.
FORK, says Perry, wants to help change that for the children of Vilas County.
Laurie Lenten is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce, Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond and Living on the Lake magazines.
(*Warm the Children is a community service project sponsored by The Vilas County News Review)