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Snow Days Impact Low-Income Families Even After Storm Is Over

Urban Ministries of Durham's food pantry, which serves community members in need, tends to face extra demand after storms or bad weather.
Reema Khrais

Thousands of North Carolina students are back in school after last week’s winter storm. But for many, the effects of the snow aren’t quite over. For low-income families, three to four days off of school can disrupt a tight budget, especially when their children rely on free or reduced lunches. 

Joyce Beavers, 32, takes care of four children who are all under the age of twelve. When she’s not at home, she works as a nurse’s aid making $7.25 an hour. She says she brings in less than $15-thousand dollars a year, and her husband is unemployed.

To say that her budget is tight would be an understatement.

"Extremely tight, extremely tight an the things the kids want [or] need, sometimes I can't get them," she says. 

Beavers says she budgets her family’s food allowance very carefully and all of her kids receive free meals at school. So when last week’s winter storm meant four days of no school, food supply ran low.

"We got really low, we ran out of bread, we ran out of eggs, we had just like a jar of peanut butter." - Joyce Beavers

“We got really low, we ran out of bread, we ran out of eggs, we had just like a jar of peanut butter,” she says. We had to make up for what we didn’t have and then buy for the next week, which was crazy and then we ran out of [food] stamps again.”

About 800,000 children in North Carolina receive free and reduced meals at school, or about 56-percent of students.

Many families like Joyce’s rely on local services like the Urban Ministries of Durham,  where they can stop by the pantry every 30 days to collect white plastic bags full of canned food. The organization serves an average of 483 households per month.

Bryan Gilmer, the organization’s director of marketing and development, says his service and others like it tend to see more traffic after weather like last week’s. 

Joyce Beavers says she relies on free meals at school and donations at local charities to feed her family of six, especially during breaks from school.
Joyce Beavers, 32, says she relies on free meals at school and donations at local charities to feed her family of six.

“If you’re a middle class family, you might not think about it, if there’s a snow day announced, you’re kind of excited because you’re going to get the day off from work, you’re going to stay at home with your kids. They’re excited to go sledding, build a snowman, something like that,” he says. “But if you’re a working poor family, that can be a crisis.”

Gilmer says his organization also tries to step in to simply provide better food options. 

“We hear a lot of stories about improvised meals where something that would be one component of your meal, will be a family’s whole meal. So cornflakes without milk for dinner or black beans and nothing else for lunch,” he says.  

Making sure that kids don’t eat only black beans for lunch is part of the rationale behind free and reduced meals at school. Jim Keaton, executive director of Child Nutrition for Durham Public Schools, says about 65 percent of the district’s students receive free or reduced lunches and breakfasts.

"It does take quite a heart to see some of these kids, they're so excited to get a meal because you know it might be the only meal they get for that day." - Jim Keaton

“It does take quite a heart to see some of these kids, they’re so excited to get a meal because you know it might be the only meal they get for that day,” he says.

Keaton says administrators factor that reality in when deciding whether to call off school because of bad weather.

“It does weigh heavily on the administration because they have to be concerned not only with the child’s physical safety, getting them on the roads or getting them home safely but also knowing that they may be hungry when they get home and how do we balance that,” he says.

Schools across the state provide different programs to help low-income children. Some give kids backpacks of food to take home during breaks, while others provide pantries. For the long summer, many districts offer programs that feed kids daily.

Joyce Beavers says there’s no way she could afford to pay for all of her children’s meals. 

“To be honest with you, we do what we can at home, it’s not always a whole lot…but we really do depend on school, a lot of times churches, before food stamp day and like maybe a couple of weeks after food stamp day,” she says.

While last week’s snow complicated her budget, Beavers says the bigger hassle is typically during the long breaks. She says summer and winter times often mean stretching a one-week budget to fit two entire weeks. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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