For some students, the start of school offers a welcome relief from the boredom of summer; for others, it offers relief from something more serious—hunger.
While most of us don’t stop to think where our next meal will come from, the Food Research and Action Center reports that 35% of families in Winston-Salem and surrounding areas are struggling to get meals onto the table. That translates to one in four children facing food insecurity and at risk for hunger. Schools like Northwest Middle School, where 69% of students receive free and reduced lunch, experience the effects of childhood hunger on a personal level. While Monday through Friday eligible children receive two solid meals a day at school, over the weekend this steady source of nutrition isn’t available.
Proper nutrition is critical for children to be able to meet the physical and academic challenges of school. Lack of a consistent access to healthy food can be detrimental to anyone, but is particularly devastating to children whose bodies are still in development. The consequences of not receiving the proper nutrients to support physical, mental, and emotional development can be long-term, and even permanent. Mrs. Grossheim, a sixth-grade math teacher, notes that, “If students are hungry, they are unable to focus in the classroom. They also become frustrated and irritable very easily.” Other effects of hunger can include excessive tiredness, stunted growth, poor oral health, anxiety, aggression, stomach problems and low academic performance.
The Backpack Program provides a solution to this problem. Every Friday afternoon students receive food for the weekend, camouflaged in a backpack. Each backpack contains two breakfast and two lunch meals which students can prepare for themselves without adult assistance. The Second Harvest Food Bank orders the food at a reduced cost (around $5 a book bag) and volunteers at Beck’s Baptist Church pick up the food quarterly, distribute it into individual backpacks, and deliver it to Northwest each Friday. Students don’t have to be eligible to receive free and reduced lunch to receive a backpack. Teachers who see signs of hunger can refer any child to the program.
As one student said, “The backpack program has helped me a lot. Sometimes I don’t have something to eat or something to drink, maybe sometimes on the way home. I eat some of the food on the bus or eat the food when I am hungry, so the program helps me out at home and school.” Although each backpack sent home is designed to feed only one student, families are impacted as well. Another student commented, “I am thankful for the backpack program because it helps my family, especially my baby sister. That she likes the milk.”
Mrs. Morrison, a Computer and Technology teacher at the school, recounts an experience last year, “I was called to the guidance office, where I was introduced to a mother who was enrolling her children. She was crying, because her husband had just lost his job. Her family had to move in with her sister, which meant her children had to change schools. When she finished her story, I explained the backpack program to her. After giving her a permission form for her son, she began to cry again, but this time while smiling. I asked if I could give her a hug. She grabbed me and hung on, all the while thanking me.”
While around half of the elementary schools in Forsyth County have Backpack Programs, Northwest is one of only four middle schools to participate. Generally these programs have corporate or church sponsors; however, at Northwest, teachers have worked diligently to generate funds, through concession sales and other faculty-sponsored fundraisers, to raise the $10,000 needed to feed fifty kids throughout the school year. It’s been a struggle, but these teachers are dedicated to ensuring that those most vulnerable to hunger have a chance to be successful in the classroom and beyond.
You can find out more about Backpack Programs in the Forsyth area by logging on to forsythbackpackprogram.org/ or, to support the Northwest Backpack Program, contact Northwest teacher Tammy Morrison at email@example.com.
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