As the school buses rattled away from Carroll County classrooms last Friday, some students had more than books in their backpacks. They had enough healthy food to sustain them through the weekend, thanks to a community wide partnership called “Operation: Food for Hungry Kids.”
The idea gained steam last spring. Teachers knew something needed to be done. Students were squirreling food from the cafeteria into their desks and backpacks. It wasn’t a prank. It was the only way those students could be sure they would have something to eat when they got home.
In Carroll County 24% of children are in poverty. Nearly 63% of students in the Berryville district qualified for free or reduced lunches during the 2012-2013 school year. While those meals were guaranteed, school staff knew many were returning to class the next morning with empty stomachs.
As the stories of school age hunger in the community began surfacing, Mercy physicians and leaders approached the Berryville school nurses, asking how they could help supplement an existing food backpack program that was facing reduced government support. Mercy immediately committed $2,000 and Mercy Hospital Berryville Auxiliary members made an additional gift of $3,000. Several individual donors made large contributions. Loaves & Fishes Food Bank quickly jumped in to offer its know-how, volunteers and buying power.
“When we heard what was happening with our local kids, we knew it was something we needed to get involved in,” said Kristy Estrem, president of Mercy Hospital Berryville. “When you talk about the health of a community, you have to look at what happens beyond the walls of the hospital. These kids need sound nutrition. It’s the key for good health and the proper development of children’s bodies and brains.”
Berryville Schools determined that 75 food backpacks would be needed initially with an anticipated need of up to 125 as the program grows and school officials identify more children who need help. Students are going home with microwave meals, fruit cups, granola bars, oatmeal and peanut butter.
“We looked for items with high nutritional value,” explained Lieu Smith, board secretary at Loaves & Fishes. “We want to make sure the kids can concentrate on getting an education and becoming productive citizens. We know poverty isn’t something you just outgrow, and this program can help break the cycle.”
Since last spring, Mercy has donated another $7,500 to the program. KTHS Radio and Carroll County News have signed on as media partners to spread the word about the program. Now, it’s your turn. The program needs ongoing financial support. While the food bank can buy $5 worth of salvage food for every dollar donated, most of the items in the backpack cost more. Teams are also needed each Thursday night to pack the backpacks and get them ready for the children to take home the next day. Hospital auxiliary members volunteered to take the first two weeks, and already church groups and others are stepping up to help.
The need also doesn’t stop for the regular clients at Loaves and Fishes. “We see a lot of stories,” explained Smith. “It could be a grandparent who planned ahead and had enough for himself in retirement, but didn’t anticipate raising multiple grandchildren on a fixed income. Or a mother who can’t afford a birthday cake for her child.”
You can give money, donate food or give your time. Monetary donations are tax deductible. For more information, just contact Loaves & Fishes Food Bank at (870) 423-4246.