NORTH FULTON — In the wake of the COVID-19 storm that swept through Fulton County were the tens of thousands of students who relied on their schools to provide the bulk of their meals.

Although the district quickly implemented a plan to continue meal service when instruction moved from in-class to online, the need remains great. Nearly 40,000 of the district’s 93,000 students are eligible for free and reduced meals, including breakfast, lunch and often afterschool snacks.

Alpharetta City Councilman Ben Burnett saw the need firsthand at Alpharetta Elementary School, where his children attend and where he serves on the School Governance Council. He said many people would be surprised to know the number of students in the area eligible for free/reduced lunches.

“Poverty in several [area] schools is in the teens percentage wise, and COVID has made that challenge even more daunting,” Burnett said.

To help meet the food insecurity gaps created by the pandemic, Burnet organized a coalition of community groups to meet the needs. Working alongside city officials, Burnett recruited faith-based leaders, and non-profits including the YMCA, Chick-Fil-A Foundation and Star House in Roswell, among others to participate in the effort.

“All of these [groups] have unique strengths and we have started with them as cornerstones,” Burnett said. “[Later] we will begin to leverage our business network.”

Either through direct services or gift cards, resources will be provided to area school principals who are uniquely positioned to know which of their students needs help. The focus is first on Alpharetta and Manning Oaks elementary schools, and Alpharetta High School which will serve as the “conduits” to other areas schools, Burnett noted.

School Board member Katha Stuart, whose district includes Roswell and Alpharetta, said North Fulton has seen rising numbers of students in need as the pandemic stretches into the new school year.

“Simply stated, if our students are hungry they cannot learn,” Stuart said. “We are encouraged to see this group make a concerted effort to determine the needs, assess the supports, and coordinate additional help where there may be gaps.”

Fellow board member Katie Reeves agrees.

“The pandemic has heightened the needs of many in our community,” said Reeves, whose district covers Milton and Alpharetta. “So many have never been in a place where they need to ask for help. Identifying those struggling families is a key role for the school system.”

She applauded Burnett’s “all hands-on deck” approach to ensure efforts are not duplicated.

Last week, several area churches pledged to support the coalition in their efforts to collect gift cards for distribution at area schools. These included Alpharetta First Baptist Church, Alpharetta Presbyterian, Alpharetta First United Methodist, and St. Aidans Episcopal Church among the many faith-based partners.

Burnett credits Alpharetta’s Assistant City Administrator James Drinkard with supporting the coalition and providing the platform needed to pull resources together.

“There are needs we can’t meet as a city, but we know the people and organizations who can,” Burnett said. “When every child has access to education the city is better off. When parents don’t have to worry about nutrition for their kids, we are all better off.”

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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