A 9-year-old girl living in the Jersey Shore area broke down in her virtual class and told her class she was "starving," a local food bank said.
Fulfill, a food bank based in New Jersey, told TODAY Food they got a call from the school district social worker who explained the girl had been having trouble concentrating and started to cry "uncontrollably."
"When asked what was wrong, she confessed in front of her entire class that she was starving," Linda Kellner, the director of external affairs for Fulfill, said. "It's just all so heart-wrenching and frankly, very very courageous of this little girl."
Kellner said learned the girl's mother had lost her job at a local restaurant at the onset of the pandemic and the entire family - the mom and three kids - "was hungry."
Fulfill helped get them food as well as grocery store gift cards. Kellner said they also helped the mother, who does not wish to be identified, sign up for food stamps and healthcare for the kids.
They were able to find the mom a new job as a dishwasher and Fulfill is assisting her with "exploring other opportunities" for employment for a longer-term solution. Since the story went locally viral, Kellner said, they've had tons of job offers for her.
"We're looking to stabilize the family with the resources they need," she explained, adding donor support for the family after local news coverage has helped them purchase the kids some new winter clothes and footwear.
Since the onset of the pandemic a year ago, Kellner said Fulfill has seen a 40% increase in the demand for food. They now serve 215,000 people at the Jersey Shore, including 70,000 children.
"It's definitely on the rise and we don't see this going away anytime soon," she said. "The Jersey Shore is so dependent on the restaurant and hospitality industry … that we think it's going to be quite a while before we recover."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with other federal agencies, reported in July that child food insufficiency was on the rise. Food insufficiency is when households report they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past seven days.
The rate of child food insufficiency grew from a national average of 17.4% of American households during June 4-9 to 19.9% by the week of July 16-21.
In December, federal surveys showed that 11.4% of adult Americans were either sometimes or often left without enough to eat in the past week.
According to Feeding America, the country's largest anti-hunger organization, more than 50 million people living in the United States were likely to experience food insecurity between October and late December of last year, including 17 million children. That amounts to 1 in 6 Americans and 1 in 4 children - an increase of nearly 50% over 2019.
"We'd like to remind people that there are a lot of other kids in this same position that fit this bill … it's a sad situation but there are a lot of other sad situations," Karla Bardinas, a spokesperson for Fulfill, added. "It's tremendous how this story has touched so many people. I think it's just the thought of how this little girl … how desperate she would have to be to say that in front of her classmates."
As for Kellner, she said stories like this are the reason she comes to work every day.
"Think of being this 9-year-old little girl so consumed by hunger that you can't think about reading, math or writing," she said. "All you're thinking about is that pain in your stomach. That really is what keeps me up at night."