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Parent tackles 'food insecurity' at Towson High

Parent tackles 'food insecurity' at Towson High
Cheri Bond Pegues, the PTSA president at Towson High, helped to organize a program at the school that donates food to students who need it. (Nicole Munchel / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

About a year ago Towson High School Parent Teacher Student Association President Cheri Pegues was in a school mentor's office when she saw something that stuck with her, and prompted her to take action — canned goods and other snacks filling up a drawer in the man's desk.

School mentor Bruce Seward, who retired last June, said he kept the food there for students in need. Sometimes students wanted a snack before an exam, he said, but others didn't have money for lunch.

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In 2005, when he came to Towson after 35 years as a counselor at Perry Hall High School, he said he started putting a large jar with granola bars out for students, to make them feel more at ease in counseling.

"My Lord, that grew," Seward said.

Soon, the school helped him finance an impromptu food pantry, which eventually filled a four-drawer filing cabinet, two drawers of his own desk, and a seventh drawer in another cabinet.

Kids would tell him they hadn't had dinner the night before. Some families might have qualified for free or reduced meals, but didn't want to provide personal information to the school, such as household income, which is necessary to join the program. At Towson High School about 16 percent of students receive free or reduced meals at school, including breakfast and lunch.

About 100 students would drop in to his classroom pantry, Sewar said, with varying levels of need. Some would come in to get lunch, which they ate in Seward's office.

"They'd close the door, because they didn't want anybody seeing them," Seward said.

The courses at Towson High School, which includes a magnet program for law and public policy, are academically intense, Seward said.

"You need energy for that," he said, adding that he can't imagine how difficult class must be for students who don't have enough food. "You go to school and you're hungry when you get there, and lunch time comes, and you don't have anything for lunch," he said. "Your brain needs to be fed. I think it's critical."

The last year he was at Towson, the 2015-2016 school year, he had to fund the pantry by himself.

Pegues, with a "heart of platinum," offered to help, he said.

That fall, Pegues started an adopt-a-family program at the school, for which she was later nominated for a state parenting award.

Seeing the drawer full of food had brought to her attention a need in the school, and since then Pegues has been working tirelessly to meet that need.

This fall Pegues helped organize and bring a countywide food supplement program called Food for Thought Baltimore County to Towson High, which provides a free bag of food each week to students identified by school officials as in need.

The program was brought to Pegues' attention by a friend after reading about her adopt-a-family program in the Towson Times, Pegues said. Food for Thought seemed like a good way to help even more.

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"My concern is for the kids," Pegues said. "I've been blessed. It's my responsibility to share what we have."

A group effort

Food for Thought Baltimore County was founded by Carroll County resident Monica Butta three years ago, after she saw a news report from Texas about childhood hunger and decided to act in her own community. Food for Thought functions more as a coalition, connecting schools with local groups, mostly churches, who purchase and pack the food for students.

Towson High's parent-teacher association partnered with Towson Presbyterian Church to supply Towson High's program, and on the last Sunday in September church youth group members met to pack the first round of bags for 13 students at Towson. Since then, three more students have joined the Food for Thought program, Pegues said.

Volunteers purchased the items for the bags based on a list provided by a nutritionist who works with Food for Thought Baltimore County. The food is also purchased with the consideration that students might not have access to refrigerators or other appliances.

"You have to consider that these children might not have access to a microwave [or] a can opener," Pegues said. "You have to assume that they're homeless."

It took the 24 youth group members about 10 minutes to fill two dozen blue drawstring bags with cereal, milk, fruit cups, chili, soup, and other items that afternoon.

The volunteers are hoping the simple items, many staples of most people's diets, won't just satisfy the hunger of students in need, including homeless students, but will also help them achieve more in school, unburdened by the behavioral and learning problems which often accompany being too hungry to focus.

Towson High School is one of two high schools in the Towson area, along with Loch Raven High School, that participate in the program. Though the program is county-wide, much of the work has occurred in Towson because of the connections Butta's husband, The Rev. Christopher Tang, rector at The Church of the Holy Comforter, in Lutherville, has made. Right now the program is in place at about 13 schools of all levels countywide, she said, though that number may change or grow as the school year continues. Those schools include Pot Spring Elementary, Pleasant Plains Elementary, West Towson Elementary, Ridgely Middle and Loch Raven High School.

Providing the weekly bags of food to students for one year costs about $500, said Pegues, who has been reaching out to parents and other community members for donations. She brings up the program in conversations, and said she's had good results, with people willing to donate money to the program.

Pegues said the program is still seeking funding to cover the cost of food for the students. Persons interested in donating can contact Pegues at cheri007@comcast.net.

The students selected for the program are identified by social workers or other staff members at the school. For confidentiality reasons, the students were not available to be interviewed for this story.

A growing need

Pegues and others say they see a growing need for food assistance in Towson, despite its relative affluence.

The average family income in Towson is about 30 percent higher than that in Baltimore County overall, according to 2014 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But census information also shows a growing trend in poverty among some of Towson's families; in 2010 about 3 percent of families with children younger than 18 were in poverty as defined by the federal government on a sliding scale depending on income. For three people the threshold household income is $20,160 annually, while for four people it is $24,300, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2014, the most recent year available, the number of families with children younger than 18 in poverty in Towson more than doubled, to 7.2 percent. The trend is even sharper among families with children younger than five — in 2014 15.6 percent of those families in Towson reported living in poverty.

Countywide there has been a small increase, from 8 percent among families with children under 18 in 2010 to 9.9 percent in 2014.

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Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. who studies suburban poverty, said nationally the number of people in poverty in the suburbs is increasing. The increase is happening in two ways; poorer residents are moving into the suburbs, and people who already live in the suburbs are becoming poorer. Factors such as the availability of affordable housing, movement of employment from the city to the suburbs, and the growth of low-wage jobs are among the factors driving the change.

In 2011 Kneebone said the Baltimore metropolitan area shifted from the majority of poor residents living in the city limits, to the majority living in the suburbs. That change reflects the population, not the poverty rate, Kneebone said. Suburban poverty can be challenging to address, she said, because it can be hidden in more affluent communities, and in many communities the support structure available in the city isn't as well developed.

There is also a stigma, making things more challenging for families in poverty in the suburbs, she said. Families who once donated to food banks may now receive food from them, Kneebone said as an example.

Food security is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life." When a person doesn't have that, that person is food insecure, which can have a broad range of impacts, according to Butta. Students might not respond the same way to instruction, because the student is either too hungry to concentrate or too worried about future meals to focus.

"Oftentimes students just give up," Butta said. For example, she said, a student might refuse to take a test because they are hungry.

Hunger is also connected with behavioral issues in students. Butta sees those types of problems in the Towson area, she said.

"It's surprising how much need there is up and down the York Road corridor; I think people who live in Towson don't realize the tremendous need that is there," Butta added.

When a church or other group decides it would like to sponsor students at a school, Food for Thought provides training and other supports, such as a start up grant, Butta said.

Melissa DiDonato, principal of Padonia International Elementary, in Cockeysville, said the program is entering its third year of operation at the school, in partnership with Church of the Holy Comforter. While at first seven or eight students were receiving bags with food, that figure has doubled, DiDonato said. She has seen a definite change in the social and emotional behaviors of students who are getting help, she said.

When students are food insecure it creates stress in the family, she said. That stress can manifest itself in a few ways, she said, from students acting out more to being more reserved. When that stress is lifted, you see happier children, she said.

"You just see a happier family dynamic overall," she added.

A previous version of this article mistated the need of the program at Towson High School, which is still seeking donations. It also incorrectly stated Bruce Seward's name.

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