by Ilina Ewen
The chime of the Friday school bell isn’t music to the ears of all children—for many students in Wake County, it can signal facing an empty cupboard for the weekend. One in four children is at risk of hunger in central North Carolina. If you have volunteered in a school or chaperoned a field trip, chances are you have spent time with a child who was anxious, exhausted or unfocused due to chronic hunger. Mondays are the worst for school nurse visits and discipline issues; that’s often because students that rely on getting their calories from school meals have not eaten much over the weekend.
“BackPack Buddies is the first line of defense for kids experiencing the stress and trauma of food insecurity,” says Julie Cox, former Advocacy Manager at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, the organization that started the program in 2006. During the last school year, the Food Shuttle delivered 1,700 bags each week to 52 schools in Wake County. Every Thursday, volunteers deliver bags of food to schools to be distributed before the Friday dismissal bell rings. The goal is to send each student participant home with enough food for the weekend: six meals, including protein, vegetables, fruit, breakfast items and snacks. “Healthy food is a right, not a privilege,” says Cox.
The Food Shuttle serves seven counties in this region, working at the district and school level to identify students and determine a plan. It takes a village, as they say, to make it happen. Schools, local churches, nonprofits and civic organizations raise money for the program. The Food Shuttle uses its relationships with Food Lion, Harris Teeter and other providers to purchase groceries at a discount, while workers and volunteers pack and distribute it. Volunteers at the school deliver the bags to classrooms so teachers can discreetly tuck them into elementary schoolers’ backpacks (for middle and high schools, they offer on-site pantries). For many students, confidentiality is key to maintaining a sense of dignity and avoiding stigma.
Each BackPack Buddies program has its own story: The Cecilia Rawlins Fund (CRF), for example, is a nonprofit started by a group of moms at Wiley Elementary School. They found that some students struggled to pay attention during tutoring, so they started bringing a snack to each session. When they saw an improvement in focus and performance, it sparked a discussion about food insecurity. “So many of us take for granted that we have access to food when we are hungry,” says Kathy Foglia, a teacher at Wiley Elementary School.
Working with the principal plus social workers and counselors, the group identified the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle as a partner to provide weekend meals, then established a fund in honor of retired Wiley principal Cecilia Rawlins. The CRF now funds BackPack Buddies meals for 30 students each week. “The Cecilia Rawlins Fund helps remove hunger from the equation so students can focus their attention on learning,” says founding board member Kathleen Lowe, who notes that this enhances not just that student’s experience, but the dynamic of the entire classroom.
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church supports BackPack Buddies at Washington and Wiley Elementary Schools through volunteering and funding from the congregation. “St. Michael’s loves this connection to the community,” says Elizabeth Matthews, who manages logistics.
Hunter Elementary School has had a program for over 17 years, making it one of the oldest in Wake County. “We’ve had 40 to 80 students each year in our program, and that has meant weekend food security for each of those kids,” says school social worker Trinity Pellas. “We hope that this consistent access to food impacts not only their nutrition, but their school performance… We also hope it helps them feel loved and secure, so they know that we care enough to make sure that they never go hungry.” The Junior League has sponsored their program and others for years.
“The kids felt like they were taken care of, and school felt like an extension of family,” says Cecilia Joyce, a former teacher at Hunter who worked with many BackPack Buddies recipients. And that’s the point: above all, the program makes kids and families feel like people in the community care. “BackPack Buddies is more than just a source of food—it’s a symbol of hope, relief and happiness,” says Amber C. Simmons, Child Hunger Programs Manager at the Food Shuttle.
One fourth grade student commented that because of BackPack Buddies, he feels a sense of relief rather than dread as the weekend approaches. A mom of another student says the program allows her to better provide for her family: “I am so grateful that I haven’t had to worry about groceries.” And a third grader commented that he likes the variety he gets. “We mostly have beans at our house, so I really like getting the food each week that we can eat with the beans. We eat it all!”