In an effort to combat childhood hunger in Watauga County, the Hunger and Health Coalition is expanding its backpack program that allows school children to take home food for the weekend.
Designed as a supplemental nutrition program to protect children against the consequences of hunger, the backpack program provides participating children with nutritious meals to take home each weekend or during breaks over the course of the school year.
“Children who receive free and reduced meals at school often do not come home to steady and reliable meals,” said Elizabeth Young, HHC’s executive director. “It is critical that we nourish our youth’s bodies so that our educators may nourish their minds. Ensuring that all children have access to the foods they desperately need to grow and learn is at the top of our priorities.”
According to HHC, one in five children in Watauga County do not know where their next meal will come from, 24 percent of residents live in poverty and 48 percent of residents are considered as having low income by federal standards.
“That’s a startling indicator of just how tough things still are for many Watauga County families,” Young said in a statement.
The menu rotates but always includes two servings of grains, three servings of fruit, two servings of protein, two servings of milk and one serving of vegetables. The program in Watauga County is a collaborative effort of the Hunger and Health Coalition, Watauga County Schools and Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC.
Meals are typically placed in plastic storage bags or into grocery bags to be given to students. The way the children receive the meals depends on each school. Young said some schools prefer teachers or counselors to place the meal bags into a student’s locker or cubby, while others have students or parents pick up a bag from a counselor’s office.
Young said this discreet approach helps keep students from becoming insecure about being given the meals and keeps their peers from “food shaming” them.
Hardin Park social worker Denise Presnell said there are more than 300 children in Watauga County Schools that take part in the backpack program.
“The backpack program is a literal lifesaver for our students who may be home alone over the weekend, or need supplemental items to carry them through a weekend with little food in the house,” Presnell said in a statement. “It helps them return to school on Monday with their nutritional needs met and ready to learn.”
Young said the program started in January 2010 and included four county schools. Other area schools were being served by a similar program provided by the Christian Outreach Center — operated by the Three Forks Baptist Association. HHC recently inherited the COC-operated program, allowing HHC to expand into five additional elementary schools in the area.
This means the program is in every school in the county with the exception of Blowing Rock School and Two Rivers Community School. Young said HHC hopes to expand its program to every school in Watauga County.
“We hope to be able to be a helpful resource to every child that needs us in Watauga County and reach every kid that might need assistance in every school,” Young said.
Heather Holbrook, a social worker at Green Valley School, said her school was one that was previously assisted by the COC and provides these meals for roughly 40 students.
If school has been canceled for bad weather, Holbrook said it’s not uncommon to have students requesting their food bags and wondering when they may receive them.
“They’re looking for it for a reason,” Holbrook said. “That tells me that it’s needed.”
Holbrook said she has seen food insecurity take a toll on parents and students, and this program helps relieve some of that worry. Meals are healthy and easy for students to eat. For example, most often the students won’t need to use a microwave or other assistance to be able to eat.
Families are sent forms to sign up for the program at the beginning of the school year, Young said. Holbrook suggested reaching out to a school counselor or social worker for families who are interested in signing up.
“Sometimes we have kids that come to us and tell us that they’re hungry and need extra snacks or food,” Holbrook said. “We try to reach out to those families and see what else extra they might need.”
Young said the need for donations for the program is great. In order to keep up with demand, HHC seeks community support. An anonymous donor has announced to HHC they are willing to match monetary donations dollar-for-dollar for this program until the end of the 2018.
“We have continued to see the need increase for these programs and we ask for your support in ensuring that we can continue to keep up with the demand,” states Young. “There are many ways to get involved, from volunteering your time, to helping to deliver backpacks, to making a financial contribution. Watauga County is an incredible community where neighbors can make a real difference for their neighbors in need.”
For information or to volunteer, visit hungerandhealthcoalition.com or call (828) 262-1628.