Americans who watch the news are probably aware of the child obesity epidemic facing the nation. What they might not know is that intermingled within the obesity epidemic, and standing alone as its own problem, is child hunger.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 16.7 million children aged 17 or younger live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food for a healthy life. Virginia is part of those statistics. In fact, the Virginia Department of Social Services reports that 250,000 of Virginia’s children live under the poverty level, which means they are most likely food-insecure. Some of those children live in Rappahannock County.
Children in low-income families are sometimes obese because they may have access only to cheap processed foods that are sugary, fatty and lacking proper nutrients. But some kids living in poverty also don’t have access to enough food to keep hunger at bay. Numerous national studies show that malnourishment causes mental as well as physical ailments. Conversely, said Trista Grigsby, nutrition director for Rappahannock County Public Schools, children who get proper nutrition function better.
“Studies show that children who eat school meals perform their best academically, and students who eat school breakfast have greater gains in standardized test scores and show improvements in math, reading and vocabulary scores,” she said.
Through their reduced-price and free meal programs, the county school system has been helping children receive nutritious meals during the school week. Grigsby said 43 percent of Rappahannock County Elementary School students (271 children) qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
But school programs don’t feed hungry children over the weekend.
Hal Hunter, founder of Rappahannock’s Plant-a-Row program and the Food Pantry it spawned, said it was the needs of children to have access to healthy food every day of the week that moved him, Pantry officials and other community volunteers to start up a BackPack program to provide easy-to-prepare weekend food for children who qualify for free school lunches.
“What we’re doing isn’t a new concept,” Hunter said. “There are BackPack programs all over the United States. I just organized one for Rappahannock County.”
Noel Laing, president of the Food Pantry board, is a BackPack volunteer who not only helps in the planning but also in the labor involved, including sorting and packing the food and putting it on a truck to be delivered to the elementary school.
“We currently serve children in kindergarten through second grade,” he said. “Eighty children in that age group are eligible, but just 40 children have been signed up by their parents [through the school] so far.”
Laing noted that the program respects privacy.
“We don’t have any names,” he said. “We simply supply the food, which teachers discretely place in the children’s backpacks on Fridays during recess.” Foods supplied are healthy items that children can easily open and prepare for themselves, such as instant oatmeal, pop-top canned vegetables and boxed juices.
“Every other week I or someone else shops for foods from menus that were approved by a 4-H Extension agent,” Hunter said. Hunter delivers the food to the Old Washington School, where eight to 12 volunteers pack the food in plastic bags and crates to be stored at the Food Pantry until delivery to the school on Fridays. So far, Hunter has had no problems recruiting volunteers and getting monetary support.
“This program is successful because of the generosity of the people in this county,” Hunter said. “When we say we need to help others, individuals and businesses line up.”
Organizers have been trying hard to get fresh foods into the packs, said Beverly Hunter. “So far we have put in clementines, and we have made baby carrots affordable by bagging them ourselves into snack bags. We hope to get local apples donated when they come into season.”
The cost of the program is about $5 per child per weekend, a figure Hal Hunter said might fluctuate a little as the program adjusts and grows.
“We expect more families will want to join,” he said. “Plus, we’d like to expand the program to include other grades.” Hunter plans to head a fundraising campaign to help cover the costs of expansion.
“Eventually the BackPack program will be financed separately from the Pantry,” Laing said. “After this school year, we’re going to have a meeting to evaluate the program and see where we’re to go next. We really hope to add more grades.”
Grigsby also hopes the program will expand.
“The BackPack program is a great way to get healthy meals to students who may be food-insecure on the weekends,” she said. “This is a good step in the right direction. I’m glad the Food Pantry is making this happen.”
Both Hunter and Laing stressed that the future of the BackPack program is dependent on strong support from the community.
“We need Rappahannock County residents to continue to reach out to help those who are food-insecure in this area,” said Hal Hunter. “We have too many hungry families here. Our goal here is for no child to go hungry.”
To help fund the BackPack program, send a check (with BackPack program written on the memo line) to the Rappahannock Food Pantry, 603 Mt. Salem Ave., Washington, VA 22747. To volunteer, email volunteer coordinator Ray Gooch at RappRay@gmail.com.
For more information about the program, contact Hal Hunter at 540-937-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org.