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Packed with Care

Submitted by evanharrell on Tue, 12/12/2017 - 11:56


“It is hard for many of us to truly understand what it is like to be hungry,” shares Molly Craig, an eighth-grader at Rockcastle County Middle School, addressing the crowd at CAP’s Sixth Annual Hunger Walk. “Do you know that there are students who even sneak food from the lunchroom some days to take home to their siblings who aren’t old enough to go to school?”

The jarring reality that Craig describes is unfortunately an all-too-common one for many children in Eastern Kentucky. The number of students on free or reduced-price lunch plans in Rockcastle County is high enough that the district qualifies for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, which enables schools to offer a free nutritious breakfast and lunch to every student. While this provision is a step toward addressing the issue of childhood food insecurity in the area, it is still not enough to guarantee that children have access to the food they need when not at school.

“It’s tough. We have kids whose families don’t have running water. We have kids who don’t know where they’re going to find their next meal. It’s just so sad,” acknowledges J.D. Bussell, principal of Mount Vernon Elementary School. “So much of my job here has not been what I expected. When you interview for a principal’s job, you think of things like test scores and curriculum. In reality, at least here, it’s about much more than those things. It’s dealing with student custody issues, making sure they have adequate clothing, and trying to ensure that they are getting all the nutritious food they need.”

If a child is in a situation where they are food-insecure, it’s a long two days between Friday afternoon and Monday morning – and those two days can affect more than just the weekend.

“Mentally, if a child is worried that they may not have food on the weekend, there’s no way for them to be engaged completely in the classroom,” explains Regina Hull-Brown, Family Resource Center coordinator at Mount Vernon Elementary. “They shouldn’t be worrying about being hungry on the weekend – no child should have to be anxious about that sort of thing.”

Food insecurity can have a significant impact on the academic achievement and potential of children, from behavioral and developmental problems to chronic truancy. According to studies found in The Journal of Nutrition, there are strong associations between persistent food insecurity and reading comprehension skills, as well as social skills development. Apprehension about the availability of food can become a psychological or emotional stressor that influences far more than a child’s physical health. It can present a barrier that hinders a student’s ability to flourish in all aspects of their life.

Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), along with partner schools and organizations in the county, including Mount Vernon Elementary, joined efforts to tackle this problem head-on. Through the Backpack Program, CAP provides weekend meals and snacks to children who may otherwise go hungry. For students in need of the supplemental nourishment, teachers discretely place the food packs in the children’s backpacks on Friday afternoons.

“Every week, we pack somewhere in the range of 90 meal bags for the children,” explains Carolyn Lindsey, manager of CAP’s Grateful Bread Food Pantry. “The packs include three suppers, two breakfasts, and two lunches. We try to get things that have the pop top tabs on them – things that don’t require a can opener to get into, because sometimes these kids are home alone and having to feed themselves. We try to make it as easy, safe, satisfying, and nutritious as possible for them.”

The relationship between CAP’s food pantry and the local schools began at a time of critical need.

“We tried to get this program going years ago, but we just couldn’t. I mean, I did what I could with the resources we could get,” Hull-Brown describes. “Then CAP jumped in and that was such a blessing. Because CAP is so consistent, I know that I’m getting a baseline number of meals every single week.”

Because of CAP’s broad pool of resources, compassionate donors, and the dedicated employees and volunteers at the food pantry, the organization has been able to champion the Backpack Program in ways that no other local organization could. The food pantry is uniquely equipped with full-time staff, a constant influx of food donations and supplemental items from CAP’s Operation Sharing warehouse, and the space to stage the prepping of a large quantity of meal packs. CAP’s capacity to act as the core of the Backpack Program has created a generous bond between the organization and the community schools.

“Community partnerships and consistency – that’s it. That’s what it takes for these kids to feel successful and to be successful. They understand that there are people here at their school and organizations like CAP that value them and care about them. They feel special and that makes all the difference,” expresses Hull-Brown.

In addition to the weekly snack packs, CAP is responsive to any special needs identified by the Family Resource Center and is able to deliver items like clothing, baby food for younger siblings, or extra food provisions. Hull-Brown, Bussell, the teachers, and even the cafeteria staff of Mount Vernon Elementary are very attentive to the potential needs of their students who may not recognize or voice their own lack of resources, and they know CAP is a constant partner on whom they can call.

Bussell adds, “This organization is unbelievable. I don’t want to imagine what this community, this school, would be like if CAP weren’t here.”

For Bussell, the connection to CAP is personal – his family were parishioners of CAP-founder Rev. Beiting’s church in Mount Vernon and he was even baptized by Beiting. In part because of this close relationship to the organization and in part because of the association forged through the Backpack Program, Bussell and his school work to invest time and energy in support of CAP and its mission. In the weeks leading up to the Sixth Annual Hunger Walk, the school, along with other area schools, spearheaded a canned-food drive to benefit CAP’s food pantry. The school also participated in the walk, bringing almost 450 students whose enthusiasm and excitement for the event highlighted the community-wide impact made by the food pantry.

“We are blown away every year by the support we receive from the community,” says Lindsey. “The city, the surrounding communities, and especially the local schools have become such vital partners and advocates for us, year after year. And we are advocates for them. These relationships have helped this event to grow and when we come together for the walk, it reminds us that tackling the issue of food insecurity in our community and schools requires all our efforts and coordination.”

Craig, concluding her remarks on behalf of the children of Rockcastle County to the crowd at the Hunger Walk offers both a challenge and a word of encouragement. “We may not always be able to help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”


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