John Thomas of Mayodan volunteers running the bingo game at Madison-based nonprofit Lot 2540 in Western Rockingham County. Thomas spent time in jail and found himself homeless at age 50. He has since gotten his GED and says he is thriving with the help of Lot 2540. Kim Hawks / Carolina Public Press

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In 2011, the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina authored an assessment of Rockingham County’s ability to compete in the 21st century economy. The findings pointed to education levels as a challenge here, as in many other North Carolina counties.

The report’s authors called for a re-engineering of the county’s education system to better equip current and future workers with the job skills necessary to compete in the global economy.

“Workers, including those who have either experienced or are at substantial risks of economic dislocation, will have to demonstrate greater entrepreneurial acumen in responding to unanticipated economic crises and opportunities in the years ahead,” the report stated.

“Creating an entrepreneurial class and culture will reduce the regions reliance on industrial recruitment as the primary economic development and job creation strategy.”

Of Rockingham’s 90,690 residents, roughly 16 percent are living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The unemployment rate is 10.3 percent. The per capita income of Rockingham County residents — $22,521 a year — is substantially below the state average of $28,123.

Less than 15 percent of Rockingham County’s residents have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Census Bureau.

Marty Roberts, executive director of Lot 2540 in Madison, said he’s witnessed firsthand the human impact of local industries shuttering their operations and shipping jobs overseas. Roberts described the nonprofit’s client base as the “left-behind generation.”

“Thirty years ago, Rockingham County used to be really well off,” Roberts observed.

“We were primarily a tobacco and textile culture in the county. If it wasn’t farming, it was working in the mill culture.”

When area manufacturers shipped their operations overseas in the 1990s, the social safety net for a large number of Rockingham residents was shredded, Roberts said.

“The mills used to take care of their employees very well, including health care (insurance),” he said. “The mill culture was just a really tightknit community.

“In Madison and Mayodan, life kind of revolved around manufacturing, so when those mills closed and that business went overseas, our workers were left behind.”

Raye Ann Pack, a client of Lot 2540, began working at the age of 15. Pack worked a number of factory jobs, including at Liberty Screen Prints in Madison until “they up and took our work to Honduras,” she said.

Pack said years ago when her family struggled with economic dislocation, they encountered barriers in applying for public assistance.

“My husband got really sick, and that put him out of work, and we got in a bind for food, so I went to try to get federal help,” Pack recalled.

“They said, ‘We’re sorry, you’ve got too much. You’re paying for a house.’ ”

Pack said all she requested was a small amount of money to feed her young children.

“They said, ‘Maybe if you sell your house,’” she recalled.

“I said, ‘Then I’m going to be homeless. That doesn’t make any sense.’”

Untrained workers may not benefit from new jobs

In 2013, the gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co. purchased the 220,000-square-foot building in Mayodan once occupied by textile maker Unifi, giving the Rockingham County a much-need economic boost.

By January 2014, Ruger & Co. was manufacturing guns in the repurposed facility, bringing an estimated 473 new jobs and $26 million in economic activity to the area.

Roberts praised Ruger & Co. as a great asset to the Mayodan community but questioned if local residents are actually reaping the economic rewards.

“When you have manufacturers interested coming in, you have a disparity of trained workers,” he said.

“I wonder how many of their employees are actually Rockingham County residents or whether they’re coming from Guilford County.”

Addressing the education gap

Tamara Baker may not be reengineering Rockingham County’s education system as called for in the Kenan-Flagler Business School report, but her goal is to ensure that the education of children is not impaired by hunger and food insecurity.

Baker, project and communications director of No Kid Hungry NC, cited research that reveals a direct correlation between children who are participating in school breakfast programs and those same students achieving higher test scores as evidence of the profound need for improved access to federally funded meal programs.

“We are told repeatedly that children are better able to focus because their minds are fueled by healthy, nutritious meals,” Baker said.

“They’re able to focus and get their day started sooner. They are able to retain the information better. Teachers and principals state they have a better-prepared student base if they started their day with a healthy meal.”

Nationally, 1-in-6 children, or roughly 16 percent, are at risk of hunger. In North Carolina, roughly 1-in-5 children, or 20 percent, are at risk of hunger. More than 60 percent of the state’s 1.5 million school-age children are eligible for free and reduced price meals, Baker said.

“Childhood hunger is a real problem,” she said.

“It is significantly impacting children’s ability to learn and therefore impacting their economic future as well as their health and well-being. It also impacts the child sitting next to them in the entire school when that child is perhaps not behaving and not paying attention because they’re hungry.”

Click here to reserve your seat to this free public forum on Thursday, Nov. 7, at Rockingham Community College in Wentworth. The forum will be followed by breakout sessions on childhood and senior hunger, led by local, regional and statewide leaders.

The mission of No Kid Hungry NC is to increase access to underutilized federal child nutrition programs.

“These programs are all paid for,” Baker noted.

“Fifteen percent comes from donations and the other 85 percent comes from the federal dollars where we’ve already paid for the programs through tax dollars. We’re just advocating rather than working hard to raise new funds to actually take advantage, to maximize the funds we’ve already raised.”

Feeding students when school is out

Despite the broad impact of federally funded school meal programs during the nine months of the school year, North Carolina families in need of food assistance experience challenges during the summer.

Only 12 percent of North Carolina children eligible for free and reduced price meals at school take advantage of the federal summer food programs for children.

Jessica Soldavini, a graduate research assistant at No Kid Hungry NC, said there are a number of reasons for the low participation numbers.

“It’s important to keep in mind that these programs are not required for the school systems to be offered,” she said.

“There are cases when the program is not offered at all, so that’s one reason kids are not participating, because there is no program.”

In addition, Soldavini said there’s no consistency among school systems that are participating in the federally funded summer food programs, and there are barriers with regard to families accessing the food.

“There’s not always an abundance of (distribution) sites — there’s not enough locations for kids to go to,” Soldavini said.

“The average number of days that sites [in North Carolina] served meals was only 23 days this past summer.”

“You can just think about all those other days that kids aren’t able to access the program,” she continued.

“There are a lot of logistical challenges with there not being a place for kids to go to get the meals.”

Baker said a shift in consciousness is required for school systems and local government agencies to make access to federal school meal programs a priority.

“In terms of solutions, we need to start valuing a child’s nutrition as much as we do the desk they sit in or the building,” Baker said.

“We need to change our perspective so that (nutrition) is a truly valued integral part of the educational process.”

Removing the stigma

Another key to alleviating childhood hunger in the state is to remove the stigma associated with food assistance, Baker said.

“Traditional breakfast is served at the wrong time at the wrong place,” Baker added.

When breakfast is served before the school day begins, students must endure the “walk of shame” to the cafeteria, Baker said.

“We force the children to be identified as either those who can afford and those who cannot afford food, and therefore we are automatically creating this stigma, and that’s not going to go away until we change our frame of reference,” she said.

No Kid Hungry NC advocates alternative models for school systems to adopt, including programs that serve breakfast in the classroom; allowing children to pick up their breakfast in the hallway and eat their meal in the classroom; and a “second-chance breakfast” program, where high school students eat after the school day begins.

“We have seen schools transform overnight from serving 20 percent of their students to 90 percent by using alternative models,” Baker noted.

By eliminating the stigma and implementing alternative models of serving free meals at school, the number of North Carolina children accessing the federal programs will automatically increase, as will the quality of the food, Baker said.

Learning through interagency cooperation

The potential for cooperation among school systems, government agencies, nonprofits and private citizens to eradicate childhood hunger is unlimited and absolutely essential to addressing food insecurity among the most vulnerable citizens, Baker said.

“Everywhere we go, we find that people are simply not aware of these programs,” she said.

“And then secondly, they’re not aware of how they can partner. There is also a significant misunderstanding about how individuals can help.”

“The first thing that individuals can do is they can have their children and any child that they know — they can actually encourage those children to eat school meals, because the larger the funding base for these meal programs the naturally — they’re going to be able to buy a higher quality of food,” Baker added.


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Keith Barber

Keith Barber is a contributing writer to Carolina Public Press. He lives in Alamance County.

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