Nashville officials rushed Thursday to close gaps in the area’s food distribution network that were exposed during this week’s winter storm.
No emergency plan was in place for children who depend on meals and weekend grocery backpacks distributed through their Metro Nashville Public Schools campuses. As schools closed Monday and remained closed all week, the situation was exacerbated because organizations operating satellite food pantries for all citizens in need follow the school district’s lead on closures.
Fred Carr, the school district’s chief operating officer, put out a call Wednesday afternoon to personnel after Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee alerted him that food wasn’t being distributed. Carr used student databases to identify the campuses where children were most at risk. On Thursday, the district had set food pantries at four campuses and one community center.
“Our delivery system to these families is usually the school,” Carr said. “We haven’t had school this week so we had to kind of create a delivery system on the fly.”
Adding to the sense of urgency was another winter storm forecast to arrive Friday afternoon.
Beside the efforts of the school district to get a distribution system up and running, partner organizations with Second Harvest were trying to reopen community food pantries. Only one was open in Nashville on Wednesday, but by Thursday afternoon five were in operation. Typically, a total of 16 food pantries operate in partnership with Second Harvest.
Madison and Bordeaux are among areas that remained out of either the campus or community food pantries networks on Thursday.
“We looked at our top sites for the backpack program to target where the needs might be the greatest,” Carr said. “We did four schools and the Coleman Community Center and did a call out on our school’s call-out system to families in those school zones to let them know that Second Harvest would be distributing at these locations.”
The targeted areas had the largest number of children receiving weekend food backpacks, he said. They included schools and one community center in North Nashville, East Nashville, Antioch and South Nashville. Call outs were made in Spanish for campuses that serve large numbers of Hispanic children.
So many children in Nashville schools qualify for free or reduced meals (72 percent%) that the school district last year began offering all students free meals. More than 5,000 of the children need extra assistance and get food-filled backpacks to take home on weekends.
“We’ve some principals and teachers and social workers come in,” Carr said. “They are delivering food to families that are in need.”
The deliveries began between 11 am and 1:30 pm Thursday, he said. Faculty came in to participate even though many had a snow day.
Councilwoman Karen Bennett, who represents Madison, said families in that area also struggle to put food on the table. Many of them don’t have cars, she said, to get to the few food pantries that have opened.
“It’s distressing to know that there are kids who are home during these snow days with potentially no food,” Bennett said. “I think we need to plan for the future and we need to be prepared. Honestly, we don’t usually have this kind of weather occurrence in Nashville. It just kind of catches you off guard.”
Two of the community food pantries that reopened Thursday are operated by Nashville Metro government. Bonna Johnson, a spokesperson for Mayor Karl Dean, said food box programs at Watkins and Napier community centers also would be open from 10 am to 6:30 pm Friday even though they are typically closed on Fridays.
“Second Harvest plans to deliver more than the usual amount of food boxes to these locations, recognizing that families who don’t typically participate in the food program may have faced challenges during this winter storm,” Johnson said. “We urge everyone to do their pick-up as early in the day as possible since snow and wind is in the forecast for midday (Friday).”
The United Way of Metropolitan Nashville sent out a call for extra volunteers to help stuff food boxes Thursday for distribution in advance of another winter storm forecast to hit the city Friday afternoon. Around 100 volunteers showed up. United Way officials said they planned to review problems that occurred with their portion of the food security network once those efforts were complete.
The agency’s 2-1-1 help line went down during the storm, and once it was running operators did not have up-to-date information about community food pantries being closed. Recorded voice messages were retrieved from fewer than 50 callers, United Way officials said in a conference call. Everyone who left messages during the outage had been contacted by Thursday evening.
Nancy Keil-Culbertson, an executive with Second Harvest, said the agency was working closely with the mayor, the Metro Office of Emergency Management and the United Way to prepare for upcoming weather events.