KJ OPED: New community group addressing childhood hunger in Augusta

One hungry boy’s story made an impact on a mentor from Cony years ago.

During my senior year at Cony High School, I participated in a mentor program where high school students would meet regularly with elementary school students. The goal was to serve as a role model to the younger students, and to build positive relationships within our school community.

Little did I know at the time that I would learn from them.

I will never forget sitting in the Farrington Elementary cafeteria, scrunched in at one of the long tables, for breakfast with a bunch of second-graders. While most were enjoying their food and classmates’ company, one student commanded my attention.

We started off with a casual start-up conversation about his favorite subject in school, favorite sport, our mutual love of dogs, and things he liked to do after school. Then he began to share how he loved being at school because of the meals. This was his favorite part of the day. Unfortunately, I found out, food or meals were not always available when he went home. He was often hungry.

Even as he shared this very personal information with me, he did not act like it was a problem. In fact, I am not sure if he realized that not having access to a reliable meal at home was a problem.

I recall feeling helpless as I heard this optimistic and resilient, bright-eyed kiddo talk about being hungry. I spent the rest of the day with a knot in my stomach, wondering what we can do to correct this situation. Interestingly enough, although it’s been years, I still get that empty feeling in my stomach when I ask the same question about what can be done to eliminate childhood hunger.

It has been said that solving childhood hunger is complex, but feeding a child is easy. That is true. However, I will always regret that I was unable to do more back then to make a difference for that one child. I don’t remember his name or know where he is now. I just hope that he did not have to spend any more days hungry.

Childhood hunger really is a quiet crisis. It can be embarrassing for people to admit that they are food insecure or poor. No one wants to be the face of hunger. Yet, unknowingly, we see hungry children every day in and around our community — and world.

While it is difficult to produce concrete numbers on children who are hungry, we do know the following. We know that 57 percent of the students in Augusta schools were on free and/or reduced lunch in 2014. We also know that more than 100 students received a backpack with food before each weekend last school year. These numbers don’t necessarily mean that each child is hungry, but it is a pretty safe bet that some are. And, even if it is just one child, that is one too many.

So in remembrance of the lasting impact of this one student, I am pleased to be leading an effort in Augusta to bring greater awareness, collaboration and partnerships to addressing childhood hunger. I am pleased to report that the interest and feedback from this community has been overwhelmingly strong and supportive.

We know that many great organizations, such as the Augusta Food Bank, Bread of Life, and other groups and churches, already are doing heroic work to help provide food to those in need. We know the School Department and many local businesses also have stepped up to help make a difference. But we also know that too many children still go hungry in Augusta. And, we know that there is more we can do.

The Augusta Childhood Hunger Working Group will hold its first community meeting from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13, at the Augusta City Center. All interested people are encouraged to participate, because without our collective community efforts, this job will remain undone. As we know, many great things can be achieved when we work together. If this means fewer children go hungry in Augusta, it will be worth every bit of the effort.

Darek M. Grant, a 1999 graduate of Cony High School, is a city councilor in Augusta. Email at darekgrant@gmail.com.

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