Turquoise LeJeune Parker is one North Carolina teacher tackling food insecurity and child hunger. Photo credit: Turquoise LeJeune Parker for self and CDC for cafeteria

North Carolina elementary teacher raises over $100,000 for needy students and families to eat during winter break

Durham’s Turquoise LeJeune Parker consistently answered the hungry call from students that many–including the federal government– have often ignored. 

This week, donors and partners nationwide helped Turquoise LeJeune Parker raise over $106,000 for needy students whose families may experience hunger over winter break. The 34-year-old Lakewood Elementary School library teacher instructs more than 400 students, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade.

“Two weeks is a long time to be out of school without lunch or breakfast at school. Three meals. Children eat a lot. Food is expensive,” Parker pointed out.

The money pledged to “Mrs. Parker’s Professors Foodraiser,” helped Parker and 60 community members buy and distribute non-perishable groceries at Costco for more than 5,000 students from 12 Durham Public Schools. Ninety-eight percent of whom already rely on reduced or free lunch as one of their three square meals per day.

Yet and still, this is not Parker’s first fundraiser. 

The “foodraisers” began in 2015, when a parent informed Parker the kids would not have enough food to eat through the holiday break. “She told me, ‘I’ll be okay, I can go without eating, but I can’t let my kids go without eating for two weeks.’ It’s really hard to know they have stuff like this going on and not to do everything I can,” Parker lamented through tears. Hence, she and her husband deduced other families had to be silently suffering.

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Afterwards, Parker asked everyone she knew via text if they would be interested in donating so she could provide bags full of groceries for the entirety of the time off. That year, she raised $500. Since, efforts have long-surpassed Parker’s expectations and even salary. Fast forward, amidst the pandemic, she raised $55,000. This year was a record, with people contributing from nationwide. 

Durham Public Schools said in a statement, “[Parker’s] Foodraiser addresses food insecurity head-on, particularly during a time of year when commercialism brings need to the forefront.” They asserted, “Through her efforts, our food-insecure students have access to sustenance when schools are closed for the holidays. She is their lifeline.”

Like in many places around the world, the pandemic exacerbated many shaky foundations– food insecurity being one of them. Coupled with poverty, being of major concern in Durham for low-income minorities, namely Black and Latinos. 

According to Save the Children, about 17 million children are hungry in the world’s richest country post pandemic, with six million more kids added since before the pandemic. They also report almost three million more families are going hungry. 

“[Access to food] a basic human right. We’re not talking about raising money to buy people a vacation; this is food, a very, very basic thing,” Durham Public Schools spokeswoman Crystal Roberts told CNN. “We need to make sure we take care of our schools, because when we take care of our schools, we’re taking care of our community.”

According to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina 19.1 percent of children in Durham County, North Carolina are food insecure. As well, 31.9 percent of children in the same area received free or reduced school meals. Photo credit: MD Duran

Durham’s insecurities  

Attaining affordable, healthy nourishment is a challenge for impoverished families in the area. Durham’s population is about 43 white, the remaining 57 percent being minorities–the largest being Black at 36.9 percent. The local public school district is made up of 41 percent Black and 33 percent Latino students versus 19 percent being white. Almost 12 percent of the city’s population lives in poverty. 

Many residents cannot even easily reach supermarkets. The 2020 Durham County Community Health Assessment survey said about ten percent of residents reported skipping meals because of insufficient money to buy food. As of 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) categorizes between 20 and 30 percent of residents having limited accessibility to a grocery store, or quality healthy food. Essentially, living in food deserts.  

Black and Latinos were significantly more likely than white residents to do so either sometimes or frequently this past year. 

“In Durham County, before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 1 in 4 Latino and 1 in 6 Black residents skipped meals or ate less food because they did not have enough money. The effects of the pandemic have made it even harder for people to have enough money to buy food, especially Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) families,” purports the Durham County Center.  

It takes a village, or community 

At one point this year, one in four educators considered quitting, while some actually did. As we saw shortages across all industries such as supply-chain management, there has been a resulting shortage in teachers. A trend forecasted to last for the foreseeable future.

“This is a community effort. This is not $106,000 out of my pocket, this is the result of us operating as a collective,” Parker said. “It’s because of all the people who gave their time, their money, their talents to make sure our kids are taken care of.”

An interesting point Parker’s philanthropy stirs up, surrounds teacher’s efforts and output being disproportionate to their earned income and social capital. At one point this year, one in four educators considered quitting, while some actually did. As we saw shortages across all industries such as supply-chain management, there has been a resulting shortage in teachers. A trend forecasted to last for the foreseeable future.

Except for special education programs, elementary school teachers averaged $60,000 per year–the low end making under $50,000–in 2020 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While some report North Carolina teachers earning about two thousand less than the national average, other reports say teachers may make as low as $13 per hour, or 12 percent less than others across the country.   

Salaries and workplace conditions were a couple of the cited reasons for the decline. This is said to have started before the pandemic. Hence, their shortage may outpace that of others in various industries according to Susanna Loeb, an education economist and director of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute. 

Finances are harder for teachers in high-poverty areas. 

“Relative to their peers in low-poverty schools, teachers in high-poverty schools are paid less…receive a smaller amount of income from moonlighting…[and their pay is] less likely to involve paid extracurricular or additional activities for the school system that not only generate extra pay but also help them grow professionally as teachers.”

Every facet of the educational system, from students to faculty are feeling the pressure. Supply is not matching demand as the pool of substitutes is drying up. Not to mention, the pandemic has seen vaccine debates and surges in-school infections among other things threatening attendance for all parties.    

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Like churches, teachers have been foundational to the success of Black communities. Going beyond their job descriptions, public school teachers everywhere like Parker not only understand the plights plaguing the students they love, but support their vulnerable kids with action.  

The mother of one explains, “I call my students Mrs. Parker’s professors. If that tells you anything, it’s that I believe in them and . . . I need them to know that I love them, to remind them that love is an action word. I will tell them all day, but I will also show them all day.”

In the U.S., the instructors of future leaders make well below what their colleagues do. In 2018, the wage gap between teachers versus others in the “educated workforce” was over 20 percent. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a disparity previously six percent lower back in 1996. 

Hence, a solid case for loving teachers should be lauded and paid more instead of disregarding the value of their work and impact. Otherwise, we may also be risking under-educated, as well as, hungry children.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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