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At the onset of the pandemic Athens’s Bigger Vision Shelter closed their dining room and started serving meals in takeaway containers. (Photo/Caroline Head)

When many people discuss what COVID-19 has done to our society, they mention the deaths, the mask mandates and vaccinations. Yet there is one major thing that the pandemic has done to our society that no one is talking about enough: all the children who are not being fed. I am a graduate student at the University of Georgia and a mom, and in the county where my children go to school, we have over 65% of our children on free lunches. Most of these children only have access to food at school.

Coweta County Schools Superintendent Evan Horton made the executive decision to close schools for two weeks beginning on March 13, 2020. This decision came after Gov. Brian Kemp’s initial press release regarding COVID-19. When this decision was made, the Coweta County nutrition program started trying to figure out how they were going to get meals to children who needed them.

On March 17 of last year, the nutrition program began serving breakfasts and lunches to students who were 18 and under and to students with special needs aged 21 and under — 400 meals were served the first day. Keshia Williams, the director of the school nutrition program, told the Newnan Times-Herald that knowing that “398 kids can lay their head down tonight and have a breakfast and a lunch makes everything we do worthwhile.”

The program was offered on weekdays at seven different schools all over Coweta County. The program stopped for Spring break for a week, and only ran Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when it resumed. This then gave each child two breakfasts and two lunches on Monday and Wednesday, and one of each on Friday. A separate community program, Backpack Buddies, gave each child a bag of food for the weekend as well.

My children and I visited several locations during the months that school was canceled, and I was very grateful for all of the food that my children received. The school system recently reported 100,000 meals served to children from March to August 2020. Coweta County worked very hard to make sure the children in our school system still had food to eat. After seeing how many meals were served during that time, I really began to think about how this large of an issue and subsequent response had not made headlines during COVID.

Once I began my masters program at UGA, I researched whether children in the Athens-Clarke County area had this same issue. A 2019 release from Georgia state Rep. Spencer Frye states that over 5,300 children in the Athens-Clarke area were food insecure, meaning that they do not know where or when they will have their next meal. A year earlier, Feeding America reported that 69% of kids in the Athens-Clarke area were eligible for free or reduced lunch. This number is far too high, and is likely higher post-pandemic.

Once virtual school began in response to COVID-19, the children who were receiving their only meal at school were left without that meal. The food banks in Athens-Clarke are too overwhelmed and understocked to be able to help families who are struggling to provide food for their children. Something needs to be done about this issue in Athens as well as my home county of Coweta.

A solution for this issue could be a place that children can always go to get free food. This place, separate from schools, would need to be open at different times of the day so that it would always be accessible for children who were in need. In Coweta County, there are four “little pantries,” and they are stocked by members of the community. These pantries hold not only food items but personal care items too. Every town should have a few of these that are easily accessible. It would not fix food insecurity overnight, but it would be a big help, and a step in the right direction.