SPECIAL REPORT: Food insecurity in our communities

Local News

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Millions of families and children live with hunger every day, many in our own backyard.

“If you don’t live this every day, then sometimes you don’t have an understanding of what some of our babies go through and it’s not all of them,” said Cedar Grove Elementary Principal, Sheila Wjnowski.

Feeding America is a nationwide non-profit organization that’s confronting food insecurity head-on. It estimates more than 42 million people — including as many 13 million children — are suffering from food insecurity because of the pandemic.

“The need is very big for our students to have food readily available for them to eat, to take care of their bodies to get the nutrition they need to function as human beings, said Bay District Schools Superintendent, Bill Husfelt. “I mean it is crazy to think in this country with all we’re blessed with, that we actually have children that are malnourished.”

The Panhandle is unique in that not only are we struggling through the pandemic, but many are also recovering from Hurricane Michael, the monster storm that rocked the community back in 2018.

“For a lot of our families, you know they don’t have access to food and I remember us having the food carts and the different organizations come in after Hurricane Michael and actually provided meals for families,” Wjnowski said. “I remember lines being all the way out to the highway you know of people who just needed food to be able to survive.”

Since the storm, the federal government has qualified every Bay District School student for free school meals.

“I don’t care how smart a child is, if he’s hungry he’s not gonna be paying attention in the classroom,” Husfelt said.

Jackson County Superintendent, Steve Benton, said 75 percent of their students rely on the school’s free meals during the week.

He said the lines on Monday morning are always a little bit longer after the weekend.

“They like the hot lunch the school provides for them,” Benton said. “And it’s I mean sometimes it’s grits and eggs, sometimes it’s cereal, fruit, orange juice I mean it’s a well-balanced meal and it’s free to them.”

Walton County Schools’ Food Service Director, Robert Martin, said they’ve seen a 132 percent increase in participation in summer feed compared to last year.

“It shows that parents find this very valuable to supplement their household budget,” Martin said. “Grocery stores you notice the food bills are going up at the grocery stores and this definitely helps supplement.”

Martin said June and July were the highest summer feed months ever. More than 68,000 meals were distributed to families who qualified.

The hunger crisis facing millions of Americans is real. That’s when organizations like Feeding America step in to help. The organization has several branches including Feeding the Gulf Coast.

1 in 7 people living in the central Gulf Coast region needs food assistance. Feeding the Gulf Coast serves 24 counties from Mississippi to Florida. The Panhandle counties they serve include Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, and Bay.

In 2020, Feeding the Gulf Coast distributed 33 million meals along the central Gulf Coast. Their goal for 2022 is to reduce food insecurity in our area from 17.4 percent of the population to 16.5 percent.

WMBB News 13 and our parent company, Nexstar Media Group, have partnered with Feeding America as part of Hunger Action Month.

Nexstar has made a $2 million commitment in cash and on-air time over the next four years to the organization.

To find a Feeding the Gulf Coast pantry or nutrition program near you, visit www.feedingthegulfcoast.org.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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