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‘Consider us. Value us.’ How one Durham student is feeding his community during COVID-19

Click here to listen to our conversation with King about his hunger relief efforts in Durham.

Food insecurity concerned Elijah King long before COVID-19. King, a rising senior at Riverside High School in Durham, saw the pandemic as an opportunity to step up and help feed his community. 

In April, he founded the Durham Free Lunch Initiative — a project providing healthy, accessible meals for anyone experiencing food insecurity. To date, King and his team have served over 7,000 meals and raised more than $50,000 to fund the initiative. 

“People don’t like to really realize that food insecurity is a problem in Durham, and everyone thinks we’re doing really well. But that’s not the case,” King said.

He started the initiative after seeing a need first-hand when the lunch bell rang in class.

“I would be sitting in class and seeing people anxious to get up and get out of class. And not because they don’t want to learn anymore, not because they just want to see their friends, not because they don’t want to be in a formal class setting, but because this is one of two meals some kids get a day,” he said.

According to the Food Bank of Eastern and Central North Carolina, 49,600 people are food insecure in Durham County. That’s about 16.5% of the county population.

Connecting the dots

How does a high school senior manage to fundraise for and serve thousands of meals to community members? King says it’s all about partnerships. Being out of the school building because of the pandemic may have helped as well by providing the flexibility needed to coordinate a project of this scale. But the foundation of the initiative was built by community connections. 

“Farmers have lost their markets because of the restaurants closing down. Local businesses have lost their customers, and the community is being heavily impacted,” King said. “So we asked ourselves: ‘How do we connect these dots?’”

A sign at the Durham Free Lunch Initiative’s Geer Street Garden location. Alli Lindenberg/Education NC

That’s when King reached out for help to a Durham business owner.

He called Grant Ruhlman, the owner of Homebucha, whom he met at a climate change rally in December. He recalls saying, “Hey, I have this idea. Could you help me as a local business owner? Could you help me?”

Ruhlman connected King to several local farms and businesses. Once the logistics were set, they started serving. The main location of the initiative is in front of Geer Street Garden in the heart of downtown Durham.

Elijah King at the Durham Free Lunch Initiative’s Geer Street Garden location. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

Currently, the initiative is committed to serving meals through July 31 if they can raise additional funds. Their service is aimed at front line workers, people experiencing homelessness, and students. However, they will feed anyone in need of a healthy meal. According to their page, current funding will cover meals until June 14, and they need to raise another $61,000 to continue service. 

The initiative is serving more than 200 meals a day, up from their initial goal of 100. The initiative employees three kitchen staff members at living wage and provides six with a weekly stipend. Thirty-five volunteers have been trained and support the mission.

A quote becomes a mission

King is a young man who knows who he is and what’s important to him. When asked to introduce himself, this is what he shared:

“First, I am a family man, brother, a son, the oldest sibling, you know, and that’s the sweet spot right there. I’m a student. I’m an advocate, an activist and community leader. And most of all, I’m a friend and a neighbor,” he said. 

Another view of who he is can be seen through all of his emails. The signature includes a quote from Salvador Dali — “Have no fear of perfection because you’ll never achieve it.” He referenced this quote when asked what he would want policymakers and adults in power to know about his mission.

Elijah King at the Durham Free Lunch Initiative’s Geer Street Garden location. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

“I want to say that we aren’t asking you to be perfect,” King said. This ties with his mission with the Durham Free Lunch initiative.  

“We’re asking you to put yourself in the ordinary person’s shoes and imagine how you would feel in this position. How you would feel being a laid-off worker with kids to feed, a house payment to pay, a gas bill to pay? How would you feel being a senior that doesn’t have a graduation, doesn’t have a prom, doesn’t have a senior trip? Put yourself in the homeless person’s shoes. They don’t have a mask. They can’t stay six feet apart, because they’re going with their family or a group of people. They can’t go inside and obey the laws of the stay-at-home order. 

“Put yourself in the shoes of a person, a business owner, who has to lay off all of their employees, you know who they know have families. And that’s the primary way of them paying the bills themselves.

“That’s what I would say to our lawmakers or politicians or decision makers. We’re not asking you to be perfect. We are just saying, you know, put yourself in our shoes for once.”

The work continues

Like many teens, King runs on little sleep. When I met up with him last week, he shared that he had gotten only two hours of sleep the night before. He assured me he’s feeling fine, though. His passion, and coffee, keeps him going. 

In addition to the lunch initiative, King recently helped plan a vigil for George Floyd with his friend Aissa Dearing. Hundreds of people showed up on June 4 to hear from student performers and to light candles in memory of Floyd. 

“I don’t know if you’ve ever played Jenga, but sometimes when that last block is taken out, the whole tower falls and I think that’s what happened this time,” King said. “And, you know, I hate that it had to be George Floyd. I hate that it had to be anyone. But you know, usually people post about it, you know, do their little ‘Black Lives Matter’ post after it happens. You know, they put their little rant on Instagram. This time, I think it’s, it’s coming straight from people’s hearts and souls.”

You can learn more about the Durham Free Lunch Initiative here.

Hope Starts Here

Welcome to Hope Starts Here – a podcast produced by I’m Alli Lindenberg, EdNC’s multimedia reporter. I’ll be hosting and producing this podcast — and can’t wait to share moments of hope with you. I started this show as a response to the overwhelming stress news can cause during times of crisis. We need to stay informed, but we also need to take care of ourselves mentally and emotionally. I’m hoping this show will do just that.