Eight of the 11 county schools that serve lunches are above the 50-percent mark, with The Providence School topping the list at 76 percent and Nicholasville Elementary School coming in second at 67 percent.
Jessica Zeitz is in her first year as the director of the family-resource center at Nicholasville Elementary. She said moving from higher education into that position was “eye-opening.”
“I think the need is amazing. Today alone I had two (students) that came that said there was no food at home — nothing,” she said Tuesday. “And it’s a weekly thing where I have a kid come in and say there’s absolutely no food at home.”
Most elementary schools in the district have backpack programs that send food home for families on the weekend; NES’s program is currently serving 87 families.
“Many children in this county live in situations that most of us wouldn’t dream of living in,” Zeitz said. “The only food they get is the breakfast and lunch they get at school every day.”
The number of Jessamine County children enrolled in Kentucky Children’s Health Insurance Program (KCHIP) and Medicaid has doubled since 2000. The county had 715 children in KCHIP and 4,089 in Medicaid in 2010 compared to 338 and 2,140, respectively, in 2000, according to the 2011 Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book, released Tuesday.
Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA) is responsible for Kentucky’s data in the annual report. KYA policy analyst and KIDS COUNT coordinator Amy Swann said the group advocates for changes in tax credits at the state level to improve child poverty.
At the county level, the focus is much more on helping make people aware of assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) and the Kentucky Temporary Assistance Program (KTAP, formerly welfare). Almost half of Jessamine County’s KTAP cases were child-only in 2010, up from 40 percent in 2009 and 41 percent in 2008, according to the KIDS COUNT data center.
“A lot of folks who are eligible for some sort of public-assistance program because they’ve fallen on hard times aren’t actually taking advantage of that, which would help them with at least some temporary stability until they’re able to find that new job or finally get that raise at work,” Swann said in August.
But many in Jessamine County are aware of resources and simply can’t get them because it’s a difficult process or the wait is too long, according to Jessica Dodgen, the school district’s liaison to homeless students. She said she even hears about new resources from parents she deals with.
“Sometimes they know about it but haven’t reached out to that resource yet, because they are in crisis mode, and they’re so overwhelmed; they just need some help navigating everything,” Dodgen said. “... Even some of these basic resources like food stamps are really hard for our families to have access to, and it’s easy for them to get discouraged and say, ‘Well, I tried that once; I don’t want to try that again.’”
Dodgen said with funding cuts every year, it’s time the community stepped up to solve the problem of child poverty.
“The need isn’t going away. The money’s going down, and the need isn’t going away,” she said. “It’s time that we start looking as a community at things we can do to take care of each other, because we’re just not going to be able to rely on those state-funded programs, I don’t think, in 10 years, or even sooner than that.”
The first step the community can take in helping is contacting family resource centers at schools as well as agencies like the Salvation Army and Community Action to find out what the needs are, Zeitz said. She said the cold winter months are a prime time to think about giving to local organizations helping those in need.
“It’s hard to tell somebody to not do as much for their own family,” she said. “But think about the whole ‘pay it forward’ thing, if there are ways they can provide assistance to these people who are doing so much for the community.”
Dodgen said Jessamine County has the resources to pull together and fix the problem but that public awareness has to come first.
“I just think that we’re going to come to a crossroads in our community where it’s time to open our eyes and realistically look at the number of students and families who are living in poverty and what we can do to help them,” she said.