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Using community connections to feed rural students when schools are closed

Beginning on March 16, Gov. Roy Cooper closed all North Carolina public schools. This left 1.5 million students at home and, for those who depend on school meals, potentially hungry.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation and NC Child, 59.4% of North Carolina students were enrolled in free and reduced lunch in the 2017-18 school year. In Duplin County, that percentage is drastically higher, at 96.7%. This is why Jabe Largen, reverend at Faison United Methodist Church, finds himself in the center of a challenging situation.

Sign coming into Faison, North Carolina in Duplin county. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Largen and his church have fed the children of northern Duplin County through their Abundance program for the last five years. Faison UMC also partnered with another church, Faison Iglesia del Nazareno La Roca, two years ago to better serve the Hispanic community of Faison. The program typically distributes 13,000 meals in the summer by purchasing food in bulk and using a team of volunteers to package and distribute it.

From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Largen was helping the school system with its food distribution efforts. He knew through the summer program that some families who depend on Abundance weren’t receiving meals from the school because of transportation or communication issues.

Then, on Monday, March 30, the school district announced it was discontinuing the food distribution program due to safety and health concerns. Two days later, the district reversed course and said that “plans are underway to resume meal distribution for our students next week.”

In that short amount of time, Largen activated the Abundance program and used his community connections to feed those in need in north Duplin County, an area that has dealt with extended school closures before due to natural disasters.

The program will continue although the school district is distributing meals again. Abundance is working with school administrators and will focus on providing for families who are food insecure and lack transportation.

“So basically what we’ve done to respond, is we have initiated the Abundance program summer program, but in a different kind of way,” said Largen.

Abundance in the time of COVID-19

COVID-19 has robbed Abundance of two of its main ingredients — buying in bulk and a room full of volunteers. Since people can’t be together, the community has rallied around the restaurants that can provide food.

Each day of the week, a different restaurant is supplying food for a growing number of families. Some restaurants ask for very little payment, and some ask for none at all. Largen makes sure the staff working that day are getting tips regardless of their generosity. Community organizations are paying for the meals some days, as are individuals. 

Since there are limits on Abundance’s ability to purchase in bulk, these restaurants are solving the issue by cooking in-house. They are also filling the void of volunteers by packaging all to-go orders. This is what it looks like to solve two fundamental problems during a pandemic. Abundance, with the support of the community, is also doing its part by keeping these small businesses in business.

Each day can look different, because each day the dynamics are changing. The most prominent change for Largen is the number of families in need. “My number keeps increasing like, really fast,” he said. 

There are also additional members in households that Largen knows of because of his summer work. He knows he can’t go to a house with two plates of food when he knows he needs four. Currently, the school district is limiting meals to four plates per car, per day.

This was the first year that the Abundance program raised enough money by January to finally have a “cushion,” as Largen puts it. Since Abundance was scheduled to start in June anyways, he worries that if this crisis drags out, their resources will disappear. All that being said, he feels extremely “grateful to be in the position we are [in] to work with these families.”

The Faison community has led the way in filling the food gap, and Largen says he plays little part in that. He sees himself as only a connector of incredible resources.

“There’s all these connections in the community that are already present,” said Largen. “It’s just we don’t always see them, because of our busyness or because of our biases, or whatever. And all I’ve done, all Abundance does really, is it makes those already present connections more visible.”

The best thing Largen has seen have been the children. He says there is no denying the joy on their faces when someone comes with food. In this specific type of crisis, we can’t bring everybody physically together, but people are still having concern for other people, and people are responding to that concern in a way that has impact, he says.

“That togetherness is still happening. Even though we’re apart. And that’s beautiful,” said Largen.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.