They receive a nutritious meal at school each day, but what do some of the underprivileged children in Washington County eat when they go home for the weekend?
More than 54 percent of the students in the county school system receive free and reduced lunches, and many might go hungry at home if not for the help of a program that is now celebrating its eighth anniversary in the community.
The Food for Kids Backpack Program, which provides take-home food for more than 140 students across Washington County each Friday, was started in 2002 by a group of local students who attended a state 4-H event, according to Washington County Extension Agent Roberta Hunt. She said the foods provided consist of items that do not require refrigeration or stove-top preparation, and can be eaten directly from the container or with minimal preparation such as a microwave oven. Foods used for the program include peanut butter and crackers, breakfast cereals, juices, Vienna sausages, snack-sized cans of diced fruits and more.
Originally, the 4-H students were able to write mini-grants to help fund the program, which allowed them to feed students in need once or twice each month at the most, including holidays, for about 30 to 40 kids. Hunt said the students wanted to do more and offer food more often, but money was tight and it was hard to do that with only $1,200 available for the entire school year. During the initial years, the program purchased food from local merchants such as Parkview IGA, where owner Greg Simms assisted by giving discounts to help the program do the most with its money.
As fate would have it, the program received a break about three years ago when it was able to partner with America’s Second Harvest, a program now known as Feeding America. Although Simms gave a discount, America’s Second Harvest was able to offer food at the surprising rate of just 12 cents per pound, according to Hunt.
“We were approached by America’s Second Harvest about three years ago, and they wanted to collaborate with us and also with Community Action,” Hunt said. “We did that, and the cost of food was very minimal. We gave about 12 cents a pound for food, and all of the food is sold by the pound. This year, the costs escalated, and they started charging a gas charge for every pound, then the cost per pound went up, and now it’s a total of 21 cents a pound for the food.”
Despite the recent cost increase, the overall low cost of food on the per-pound rate made it possible for food to be provided every weekend, rather than just once or twice each month, according to Hunt.
The growing need for more students to be fed in Washington County stems from a few factors, Hunt said, including the economy.
“I think the economy has obviously caused there to be a need for more people to take part,” she said. “Also, we have lower land prices in Washington County than many places, and I think a lot of people move to certain areas because of those lower land prices. That has increased a certain group of students that might need more supplemental foods.”
Receiving nutritious food is another important reason for the backpack program. Sometimes families have not been educated as to what constitutes a nutritious meal.
For those who need help learning about nutritional foods, there are programs in the community to help educate them and correct that problem. Laura Peek, Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program assistant, said she administers a program called the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Plan. The program offers help to small groups as small as two people who want help learning to budget their money and food stamps and make the most of what they receive each month.
“We help them budget their food dollars and learn how to stretch foods so they don’t run out of things to eat in the first couple of weeks of the month,” Peek said. “We also teach them to buy foods and prepare them nutritiously. The program is for anyone who receives food stamps or has a child receiving free or reduced lunch at school.”
The food for the backpack program is distributed by the Family Resource Center coordinators at each of the schools in the county. Barbara Pettus is the coordinator of the Family and Youth Resource Center at Washington County High, Middle and Elementary schools. Pettus said she has 38 students at the elementary level and 15 at the middle and high schools respectively who receive the backpacks each Friday. In addition, the schools also have food pantries to provide for needy families of children within the schools.
“Our food pantry is open to families, and they fill out an application and give details that outline what they’re going through,” Pettus said. “They have to demonstrate a need and we try to help them through that. We have community donations that fill the pantry, and also a lot of clubs at the high school have food drives. We even have teachers who will see a need and bring in a bag of groceries to help.”
Donya Stevens is the coordinator of the Family and Youth Resource Center at North Washington Elementary School in Willisburg, and she said her school’s program sends food home with 64 students every Friday.
“It is a great need that we have here, and I’ve been surprised with how many of the kids are truly excited about getting the backpacks and coming up and asking about them,” Stevens said. “They are so happy to get their backpacks, and I also find parents to be very appreciative. Working with America’s Second Harvest and the extension office has been a great partnership for us to help these children.”
Stevens said North Washington has a food pantry similar to the one Pettus operates, and she said the need continues to increase during these tough economic times.
Stevens said her school accepts donations of food for the pantry and the backpack program, and added that anyone wanting to make monetary donations should contact Hunt at the extension office.
At Fredericktown Elementary School, Diana Edwards operates the Family Resource Center, and she said her school provides backpack food for eight of the 70 students at the school. She said that number had been six, but two more were added to the program following the recent ice storm. Edwards attributes the need for the program in her school and others to the tough economy.
“The whole economy over the last year has been worse, and we noticed a trend late last year and this year where we have families getting services who had never qualified or been part of our services before,” Edwards said.
During the ice storm, Edwards said she was concerned about the families who take part in the program, and she was able to get food to some of the families in her school’s program.
“I had made contact because I knew with the families already in hardship situations, then having the ice storm puts pressure on them even more. Most of our families in the ice storm had major food spoilage with the power outages, so I was concerned about them.”
Edwards said the program has been wonderful, and she has had parents tell her about the differences it has made for their children.
Hunt said while collecting money for the program countywide, she has at times experienced those who were reluctant to give. She said she gets comments from people who say they are not going to help, and that those in need should raise their own children. Edwards best summed up why anyone should help, regardless of their situations.
“I don’t know that you can understand the whole logistics of a statement like that unless you work in a school or work with children,” she said. “Adults can make whatever decisions they want, but the children are dependent upon the adults and can’t help their situations. If a parent goes out and spends their money on alcohol, gambling, or whatever, the children have no choice in that. We reach out to adults to educate them and make referrals where necessary, but our main concern is making sure the children are safe and healthy. Hopefully we can raise a generation of children who will be compassionate, see a need and want to help each other.”
Anyone interested in signing up for the backpack program must first fill out a form and show need. For complete details, contact Roberta Hunt at the Washington County Extension Office at (859) 336-7741. For more information about the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Plan, contact Laura Peek at the same number.
To make a food or monetary donation to the backpack program contact Hunt or Peek at (859) 336-7741.