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Nearly 350 people gathered in Chapel Hill on February 13, 2019 for the North Carolina Child Hunger Leaders Conference, where the theme this year was “Use Your Voice: Stories and Strategies to Feed More Kids.” Speakers shared best practices and success stories from their work connecting kids with nutrition opportunities across the state.

No Kid Hungry North Carolina, a child hunger initiative at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, hosts the conference annually to bring together educators, school nutrition professionals, community partners, elected officials, and any other individuals or organizations working to address child hunger. No Kid Hungry NC works with schools and community partners to increase the use of federal child nutrition programs including school breakfast, summer meals, and at-risk afterschool meals. Almost 900,000 children in North Carolina qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, and yet federal child nutrition programs are underutilized. Only 59 percent of free or reduced-price meal eligible students who eat school lunch also eat school breakfast.

Mandy Cohen speaks at a No Kid Hungry event
Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

As the conference’s keynote speaker, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Mandy Cohen described the work her department is doing to promote food security in service of health, including the state’s Early Childhood Action Plan and the forthcoming electronic resource platform, NCCARE360, that will connect health and human service referrals for North Carolina residents. She called the At-Risk Afterschool Meals Program, which is currently sponsored by fewer than 20 public North Carolina school districts, “the kind of strategy we need to pursue statewide.”

To illustrate the importance of addressing hunger in connection with health, Cohen shared a story from early in her career as a physician when she realized that her patient’s symptoms weren’t going to be diagnosed by the tests she had ordered because they were caused by hunger. “I thought I was being a really good doctor at the time, but I wasn’t,” Cohen explained. “I did not ask my patient a fundamental question about her health, which is ‘Do you have enough to eat?’”

Alice Ammerman speaks at a No Kid Hungry event
Alice Ammerman, Director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention

HPDP Director Alice Ammerman also spoke briefly at the conference, introducing City of Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. Prior to the conference, participants were asked to write verses to the song “No Kid Goes Hungry in Our State,” and Ammerman composed her own verse about Schewel, celebrating Durham’s work to address child hunger with a $125,000 CHAMPS grant. Schewel addressed the grant as well as the other work Durham is doing to address hunger in a city that was once recognized as ”America’s foodiest small town,” while many residents can’t afford to eat in its restaurants.

Videos from all the conference speakers can be found on No Kid Hungry NC’s YouTube channel.

The next annual NC Child Hunger Leaders Conference is scheduled for Wednesday, February 19, 2020 at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill.

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