RUTHERFORD COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — Students coming to school hungry is a reality for hundreds identified as homeless in Rutherford County.

Those identified as homeless do not have stable housing or may be living with multiple families.

The Homeless Education Coordinator for Rutherford County, Jessica Johnson, has a plea to community members.

“Think about when you were young, and you got off the bus, and you had a big day at school, and you run in your house, and you went straight to the fridge to grab something out to snack on before you go outside and play,” she started to cry. “Now think about getting off the bus. And what happens is you run into a motel room. And there’s no food in that little bitty refrigerator… And you can’t go outside and play because it’s just a parking lot. And it’s not safe.”

Johnson said that’s the reality for about 750 children in the area. The number continues to rise following the challenges created by COVID and consumer prices soaring to 9.1% compared to a year ago – the steepest yearly increase since 1981.

“I worry about my students and my families a lot,” said Johnson.

A lack of affordable housing makes it nearly impossible for many of the families to break the cycle.

“They’re trying their best. They’re working. They’re doing everything they can to provide for their family. But living in a motel is outrageous. It’s so expensive. And they cannot save up the extra money to make that step out,” she explained.

Even saving for food is a struggle. These children often rely on school as their single source of nutrition.

“A lot of our students are eating lunch by 11, and they will not be back to school until 7:15 The next morning for breakfast. And thinking about them not having a meal until then, is heartbreaking,” she said.

The district helps as much as it’s allowed through a program called Atlas.

“We try very hard with our program to make sure that they do have food, that they do have the supplies that they need to be successful in school, because we can only provide certain things,” said Johnson.

Top of the list of things they can provide is non-perishable food.

“Any food pop tops, not food that needs a can openers – that’s complicated – any microwavable food, trail mix, peanuts, peanut butter and cracker, small containers, individual container size that we can put in a gallon bag and pop in a backpack,” she listed items they can give to these families in need.

However, the challenge is, the need is so great, Atlas could use support from the community to keep these hundreds of kids fed.

“When you’re watching this and thinking about homelessness, please think about providing food and safety for kids by donating food. Even if it’s not to Rutherford County schools, but to your local school system to take care of your kids because they are our future,” she pleaded in tears.

News 2 investigates why the number of children classified as homeless is rising in our area and what’s being done to help them in our special reports – “Homeless Children”.