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The Chattanooga Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund enters its 100th year helping those in need with donations from readers who generously give to this unique resource that is available year round. Contributions, which are acknowledged in the newspaper, will be accepted through Dec. 31.
Hunger in the United States knows no bounds. Nearly 50 million Americans face food insecurity on a daily basis, according to Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger-relief charity.
Worse, 22 percent of American children live in poverty.
Chattanooga Pastor Jeff Seay of the Tabernacle of Faith Church of God in Christ is working to get hunger's number --perhaps literally.
After a heartfelt call to the United Way of Greater Chattanooga's 2-1-1 program, representatives Eihleen Rehberg and Diane Jarvis provided the 27th Street pastor with local statistics of requests the United Way received for food assistance. His fellow East Lake citizens were among the most in need, sending in the most food requests to 2-1-1.
In 2012, more than 16,000 Chattanoogans called 2-1-1; about 18,000 did so the year before.
Battling food insecurity is imperative to a child's growth. Hunger can cause permanent developmental delays and damage to the cognitive process centers, United Way staff said.
"Hunger is clearly a threat to family stability and can even affect a child's ability to succeed in school," Wayne Collins said.
With money raised during this year's Times Free Press Neediest Cases campaign, which runs through Dec. 31, the United Way and its partner agencies in the region hope to fill basic needs such as healthy meals to those in greatest need. Since the Fund was started almost 100 years ago, Times Free Press readers have donated in amounts large and small to help the area's most vulnerable.
Many low-income families struggle to take care of their own once summer break rolls around, even after relying on the public school system for nine months to provide free- or reduced-price meals,
"I just had the desire to see the kids get fed in the summer," Seay said. "They weren't getting balanced meals for the day."
Seay knew it then and there: He had to battle empty stomachs in his community. He used statistics from the United Way, along with the helping hands of 2-1-1's "On the Ground" program, to team up with New Hope Baptist Church in the 37406 and 37411 East Chattanooga ZIP code areas -- those highest in need, according to Rehberg.
So far this year, those two areas alone have seen nearly 3,400 calls for food assistance.
"We're working with many community partners to address this and other issues related to education and stability," Collins said. "When children succeed in school and when families are stable and thriving, that's good for everyone."
Seay brought in Boy Scouts, YMCA volunteers and neighborhood programs to make the meals happen, feeding healthy meals to 70 of the community's hungriest kids every day, five days a week.
The 2-1-1 representatives worked to verify food resources were available, then distributed vouchers to feed mouths where they could.
The hot-to-cold selections were prepared at Olivet Baptist Church, Seay said -- such as mashed potatoes, salisbury steak, vegetables, milk and fruit -- then given out to some of the area's most in-need youth.
"There was one child who told me [the day's lunch] would be his only meal he'd eat that day," Seay said. "I went to the kitchen, made him another, and told him to take it home."
Seay has volunteered his time and energy to ease the pain of food insecurity for several years, and he doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.
"It's simply my endeavor to feed kids," Seay said. "It's something I have to do every summer, and I aim to do it next summer."
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow him on Twitter at @PressLaFave.