Hunger in our schools is a nationally growing epidemic that might surprise you with the statistics. For example, Williamson County, Tennessee, is home to many celebrities. Country music stars, NFL and NHL athletes, television and movie stars move there for its beautiful, quiet community. One might find it hard to believe that in such an affluent area, 41 percent of the students in one school receive free and reduced meals. Of 500 students in the school, an alarming 205 children qualify to eat a free breakfast and lunch at school. But what about dinner and meals on the weekends?
This is where the Backpack Program steps in. The Backpack Program is run nationwide by food banks who supply food and volunteers within the schools. Food is donated from larger food pantries, then distributed to local churches and businesses who separate food items into larger boxes. A volunteer from each school retrieves the food, then delivers it to the school to be distributed among the children participating.
At Fairview Elementary School in Fairview, Tennessee (within Williamson County), the principal, Joan Tidwell, praises the Backpack Program for feeding many of their hungry kids. "If not for the Backpack Program, we know that some of our kids might not have food over the weekend." As wonderful and helpful as the Backpack Program is, however, it can only do so much. At the same school that has 41 percent of the students who qualify for the free and reduced lunches (an alarming 205 students), there is only enough food each week to feed 48 of those students.
So what exactly goes into that "Backpack Program" food? Lynn Kellogg, a student support service teacher who is also a lead volunteer for the Backpack Program at Fairview Elementary, explains that each Friday, a gallon-sized bag is delivered to the classrooms for the participating kids. That bag contains an item that is high in protein, such as Vienna sausages, macaroni and cheese, a package of peanut butter crackers, a juice box, a milk box (that stays good until it is opened) and a soft, plastic pack of a fruit, like peaches.
As Kellogg put it, "It's more of a snack than it is a meal... and to say that it will last a child the entire weekend is a stretch." If not for food banks and churches and organizations who provide the food, these children would go hungry. When you look at the bigger picture, sadly these children are still going hungry. Larger food banks donate to smaller, more local food pantries, who in turn feed those in need in their communities. When you look at the growing numbers nationwide, 1 in 6 Americans is hungry.
The Backpack Program helps many of those children, and teachers are often the ones who recognize the need. Tidwell put it perfectly when she said, "Teachers all over the country are so compassionate. They are the ones on the front line. They see the kids who need the food, and those teachers often alert counselors and principals of the kids who are hungry. Our schools so greatly appreciate the partnerships with the food banks. We just wish there were more food available, to give to those hungry families." To say that the teachers are on the "front line" is spelling out so adequately that our teachers are so often the very ones who are fighting this war on hunger. Oftentimes, those teachers are the ones who reach into their wallets to buy something for a hungry child, in need.
The volunteers work tirelessly to ensure that those children have the food ready to go into their backpacks before dismissal on Friday afternoons. Tidwell became choked up when she talked about inclement weather and school breaks. "We worry about our kids over those snow days and during long breaks. When they are with us (in school), we know that they are fed. We know that they are receiving breakfast and lunch. But the days off are when we really worry. Our volunteers will often scramble on days we know that bad weather could cause early dismissals or snow days. They make sure that if it starts snowing on Thursday morning and our kids will have an early dismissal, that they (the students) have something to go home with them in their backpacks. Our volunteers are so committed to those kids, and seeing to it that they are fed."
Tidwell and the principal of another area elementary school joined forces to host a food drive during the fall. They "received a plea from a local food pantry that had only five items on their shelves, and asked if we could help." Tidwell's school and the other elementary school, Westwood Elementary (also in Williamson County), raised almost 6,000 items to donate to the local food pantry in need. Tidwell said that the food drive was so well organized, "because each day was designated to a particular type of food. For example, Monday was the day for pasta items to be donated. Another day, they requested canned fruits and vegetables. Another day was for peanut butter, etc." Westwood Elementary and Fairview Elementary are two of the schools that struggle financially in affluent Williamson County. If those two schools can raise 6,000 food items during a six-day food drive, just think of the number that more affluent schools could raise! Kellogg points out, "Unfortunately, some areas with small pockets of poverty in more affluent counties and communities can be overlooked."
Hosting food drives for local food banks is an excellent way to get involved and help. Many of the children who benefit from the Backpack Program, nationwide, also visit local food banks with their families for food for their homes. Those local food banks desperately need our monetary donations, as well. When $1 can equal eight meals, giving directly to food banks to purchase food at reduced prices is the way to go. You can donate to Feeding America, or donate directly to a food bank in your area. During inclement weather and long breaks, those local food banks are the ones who feed those in need. Without them, our friends and neighbors might starve. But when the food bank is stocked with food, the hungry children's families can stock their pantries, as well. And in a perfect world, that is where we will end this hunger war.
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