CORA’s summer feeding program hopes to grow amid rising needs

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PITTSBORO — Whether through produce boxes or market-style shopping, CORA’s SNACK! program is helping to feed food-insecure children and families in Chatham County.

The summer grocery program fed more than 1,100 families last year and looks to increase that number this year as the local need continues to rise.

Summer Nutritional Assistance for Chatham Kids — or SNACK! — distributes free groceries to children and their families at sites across Chatham County from mid-June to mid-August. The program provides enough food for 21 meals and additional snacks each week for every child enrolled in the program. The food options include produce, milk and foods with long shelf lives.

“Summer is often the hungriest time of year for families with children,” said Rebecca Hankins, development and communications director at CORA. “Over 4,600 children in our community who rely upon free or low-cost meals at school may go hungry.”

Hankins said challenges like increased unemployment and rising inflation have only increased the need. According to CORA — Chatham Outreach Alliance — 50% more people used their services this year than last year.

Food insecurity in Chatham has continued to rise throughout the pandemic. The most recent figures from 2019 show an estimated 7,480 Chathamites are food insecure. Hankins said she expects the numbers are even higher now as the pandemic created new economic burdens for many families.

“We thought at the height of the pandemic the needs couldn’t get any bigger,” Hankins said. “But even as case counts have gone down, our numbers have not. People are really hurting out there.”

She said the increased cost of goods has left families stranded, which is why she hopes SNACK! can continue to grow.

The program began in 2009 and served 177 children; since then it has only grown, and last year it provided more than 250,000 meals to families in the county.

According to the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, at the beginning of the pandemic, about 46% of children in Chatham County relied on free or reduced lunches during the school year. Those figures have become a bit blurred as Chatham County Schools now offers free school lunches to all students through COVID-relief funding.

Hankins said she expects increased distribution through SNACK! this year because at the height of the pandemic several organizations had been distributing meals. However, those programs, such as distribution through Chatham County Schools, are no longer giving out meals during the summer.

“We’re prepared and ready to feed as many children as needed,” Hankins said.

She said the program has been working with CCS to find the families in need and ensure they are registered for the summer program.

CORA said one issue with the increased need is supply chain issues. The organization normally buys foods with long shelf lives like granola bars or canned goods in bulk, but those options are no longer available. The organization said that means more reliance on monetary and food donations.

Hankins said this summer marks the most money CORA has ever spent on SNACK! due to the increased cost of groceries and fewer bulk options.

“We are lucky to have strong partnerships and support throughout the community,” Hankins said. “We’ve been very lucky to never turn anybody in need away, and we never have.”

To cope with the challenges, the summer feeding program is seeing operational changes this year. The program is changing management by moving under the supervision of a full-time CORA employee instead of an intern. SNACK! will now be run by CORA’s pantry manager.

“Moving this program in-house is going to create continuity from year to year,” Hankins said. “SNACK! is one of our flagship programs, and we want to emphasize its importance to ourselves and the community.”

The program plans to use its community partnerships to help with assembly and distribution. For example, Chatham Trades — a nonprofit providing vocational and developmental services for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities — is helping CORA pack food boxes for summer feeding.

CORA has 15 distribution sites for SNACK!, including Pittsboro, Siler City, Goldston, Moncure, Chapel Hill and Bear Creek. Twelve of the sites distribute the pre-packaged boxes through curbside pickup based on the number of children in the family. The other three locations offer market-style distribution where families can come and choose their foods.

Registration for SNACK! is now available and will continue throughout the summer through CORA’s website, corafoodpantry.org, or through paper registration forms at its locations throughout the county. CORA is also accepting donations, which can be dropped off at 40 Camp Drive Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. For more information, contact Rebecca Hankins at rebecca@corafoodpantry.org or 919-491-5896.

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or @b_rappaport.

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