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Surge in COVID-19 cases in Western New York causes a surge in food insecurity

FeedMore WNY predicts over 80,000 children across Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties may suffer from food insecurity in 2020.

NIAGARA COUNTY, N.Y. — According to experts, the 'Red Zone' may be imminent as far as parts of Western New York are concerned. Which means an increase in cases, more hospitalizations, subsequently more unemployment, and a whole lot more remote learning.

The list goes on and so do concerns.

Many families, many of whom have been trying to create a sense of normalcy in their lives for months, are back to figuring out how to just get by as they're yet again faced with issues from the past — for example job loss, money shortages and hunger issues.

Food insecurity has always been an issue in America. But since the start of the pandemic, millions more people are finding themselves in danger of hunger. 

Based on an analysis, Feeding America estimates in 2020 the number of food insecure people could rise to over 50 million people, that includes 17 million children.

Christine Smith-Koziel, her husband and their three children live in Niagara County. This family is one of many families dealing with the harsh realities of the pandemic — layoffs, food shortage, money issues, homeschooling, etc. 

So, what's it really like? Smith-Kozoel tells 2 On Your Side, "It's been tiresome."

Like any parent, she says, all you want is the best for your child. These days; however, it's getting harder and harder.

"There are days I've cried at night when my children are sleeping wondering... are we going to lose our house? Is tomorrow going to come for us? Are we still going to be together? Because, it's scary," Smith-Koziel says. 

Trying to figure out where the next meal is coming from, juggling homeschooling, while being confined to the house due to medical issues — everyday is challenging she says. But, with the help of the community, days go by.

Two of her three kids attend Niagara Charter School, a school Smith-Koziel says has been helpful since day one. Whether by providing food, tech devices, or even hooking up the internet, teachers are there.

"I can't say anything better," Smith-Koziel says. "Between the program for the FeedMore and our school, everything has been helpful."

FeedMore WNY has always been a resource for Western New Yorkers, but these days, it's much more than that for families like the Smith-Koziel's, it's a life saver. 

Kelsey Hartman is a guidance counselor at Niagara Charter School and says since the summer, the school has partnered with FeedMore WNY to ensure students, kindergarten to sixth grade, are getting the nutritious meals they need — whether in their classroom, the lunchroom or at home.

"There's kids of various ages, not even just the ones that are in the older grades, that can see that they don't have that much food at home," Hartman says. 

And it's hard to tell. Hunger issues aren't widely talked about due to stigma and shame. 

As Niagara Charter prepares to go fully remote, Hartman says the school is also preparing to do what they did over the summer; feed the mouths of all their children, leaving no stomach unfed. 

From breakfast to lunch Hartman says, "We know that we have the means and the food to provide for every student."

Past partnerships with FeedMore WNY, Hartman says, has made it possible to provide even more for students and families within the community who are in need. 

"We are hoping, along with FeedMore, that we might be able to provide dinner and additional snacks, we are still planning," Hartman said.

2 On Your Side reached out to FeedMore WNY who released a statement saying in part:

"Since the COVID-19 health crisis hit our community in March, thousands more people have been reaching out to FeedMore WNY for nutritious food and support."

Experts predict that hunger issues will continue for the net 18 to 24 months. 

If you or someone you know is hungry or in need of food, reach out to FeedMore WNY to learn more how they can be of assistance. You can also visit their 'Find Food' page to locate pantries near you or call (716) 882-2002 to speak to someone directly.