Catoosa County, Ga., program battles 'weekend hunger'

Catoosa County, Ga., program battles 'weekend hunger'

December 25th, 2013 by Jeff LaFave in Neediestcases

Working in a back room at the Ringgold United Methodist Church, Theo and Nan Pinkston prepare 1,560 bags of food each week to help feed Catoosa County children who qualify for free lunches.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

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Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

She's the "bag lady." He's the number-cruncher.

Theo and Nan Pinkston are the founders of Nourishing Children in Catoosa, a volunteer organization that works to feed area elementary school children through donations and the Ringgold United Methodist Church.

The humble duo has always been helping strangers in ways like donating clothing to those in need. But when they learned just how severe the hunger epidemic had grown in Catoosa County, Ga., they knew the time was right to help elementary school students find something to eat.

Together, they sought to fight an invisible enemy known as "the weekend hunger."

"There are some students in the school you just know are hungry," Theo, 70, said. "The teachers know it. They [the students] come in on Monday morning and talk about not having anything to eat."

Worse yet, Theo said, are the students who are ashamed to admit their hunger. They hide their secrets behind weary smiles.

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 such basic needs for 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.

"Hunger is clearly a threat to family stability and can even affect a child's ability to stay in school," said Wayne Collins of the United Way of Greater Chattanooga. "When children succeed in school and when families are stable and thriving, that's good for everyone."

The "Nourishing Children in Catoosa" program relies entirely on the working hands of its bag-packers -- often other senior citizens -- and donations through the church.

"Sometimes, you're in line at Aldi's and someone asks you why you're buying 100 cans of vienna sausages," Nan said. "We tell them we feed kids, and someone may hand us $20 right there."

Now, 5,000 Catoosa County students are enrolled in free or reduced lunch plans. Nan, a 73-year-old Sunday School teacher, compares this number to when Jesus fed 5,000 strangers with loaves of bread and fish in the Bible.

They pack the meals every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. so that when class ends on Friday -- and students must go home for the weekend, away from regular food assistance -- "snack bags" can tide them over until Monday morning.

"I don't want any child to be struggling with hunger -- it's not their fault," said Nan, who spent 50 years as a pediatric nurse.

The duo started with a modest 300 bags in 2010, assembling any combination of seven hearty snacks for students to take home before the long weekend away: Ramen. Chili. Cups of pasta. Granola bars. Peanut butter crackers. Even applesauce -- a favorite among young kids.

With the help of Chattanooga and Atlanta-area food banks, the cost-per-bag total is often $1 or less. A $50 donation can sponsor a child for an entire year of snack bags.

For good measure, the Pinkstons also throw in a toothbrush twice a year -- many of their students say it's their first ever.

The operation since has grown to a nine-church group that gives more than 1,500 hungry students a bit of sustenance every Friday. The kids are giddy with anticipation as the bags arrive. They aren't even allowed to open them until they get home.

"The schools have told me they are so glad," Nan said. "Our attendance is way up because students want to be there to get their bags.

"These kids are the future of this community," Nan said. "We need to teach them that they need to serve and that they are important."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave atjlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.