As It Happens

This Mississippi school district is making free meals for students during COVID-19

In one of the "poorest counties in America's poorest state," a superintendent is determined to keep a food program which provides thousands of free meals to the area's students going as schools close amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

'If we're not doing this, some of our kids will not eat,' says superintendent James Henderson

A Mississippi school meals program continues to operate as schools close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by James Henderson)

Transcript

In "the poorest county in America's poorest state," a school superintendent is determined to keep a food program running that provides thousands of free meals to the area's students, as schools close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

James Henderson, superintendent of Holmes County Consolidated School District in Mississippi, told As It Happens host Carol Off that 6,000 breakfasts and lunches are being delivered daily by school buses to over 3,000 kids.

Every single child in Holmes County qualifies for free meals at school, a signifier of the area's pervasive poverty, he said. 

"If we're not doing this, some of our kids will not eat," Henderson said.

"All of the food service workers showed up, did what they had to do, and all of the transportation department showed up and delivered food … to all those babies out there."

'Price gouging is real'

Nearly 35 per cent of Holmes County residents struggled with food insecurity, according to a report released in May 2018 by Feeding America, a U.S. network of food banks.  And that number is expected to rise substantially as the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

As of Tuesday, 1,915 cases had been identified by the Mississippi Department of Health, with Holmes County recording 25 infections and three deaths. 

Children and their parents are usually so excited about seeing the buses arrive with food they will run out to the street to greet the driver, Henderson said.

James Henderson, superintendent of Holmes County Consolidated School District says 6,000 breakfasts and lunched are being delivered daily by school buses to over 3,000 students. (Submitted by James Henderson)

The area has also been termed a "food desert" by the Centers for Disease Control due to the region's lack of access to affordable fruits and vegetables, whole grains and milk, Henderson said. 

"It's really an oxymoron to call the [Mississippi] Delta a food desert. We grow all of these things… and all those are the foods that help make up a full range of a healthy diet."

Price gouging is exacerbating the issue of widespread hunger, he said, with local grocery stores increasing prices on essentials.

Many of the county's residents are not able to afford food under usual circumstances, with the typical household earning $15,600 US ($21,805 Cdn) less than the U.S. national average, according to a 2018 report by financial news site 24/7 Wall Street.

"Price gouging is real in Holmes County, which happens to be the poorest county in the poorest state in these great United States of America. I feel a shame on us," Henderson said.

Mississippi's attorney general has said it's investigating reports of pandemic price gouging in the state. 

The federal program will operate through the end of June. (Submitted by James Henderson)

Henderson added that he has been on the front lines helping staff prepare and deliver food daily, saying he needs to be there in order to "lead by example" because he is asking them to put their health at risk by "coming in during this pandemic."

However, a lingering concern for Henderson is the number of children who remained hungry over the weekend. 

While there are no food banks in the area, he said, there are people "working together trying to make sure those families whom we have identified, do have food on the weekends."

Because the program was funded by the federal government, it will "fortunately" be able to continue running through June 30, he said. 

"We will be doing what we need to do to serve the children of Holmes County," Henderson said. "We're doing what we need to do in this Bible Belt community to ensure that our neighbour is taken care of."


Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Kate Swoger.

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