WHILE MANY are making plans for the weekend centered around what and where to eat, numerous children in our county aren’t sure they’ll have enough to eat. The meals at school are one of the most stable and reliable resources in their young lives, but what about Saturdays and Sundays? Thankfully, the social workers of the Bedford County Board of Education, Marie McLean and Cynthia Cox, work passionately to see countless children and youth go home on Fridays with food to see them through to Monday through the Backpack Program.
The program is free (and volunteer-based) and started in 2010 under the Title X McKinney Vento act which focuses primarily on students considered homeless. The act is designed to facilitate the enrollment, attendance, and success of homeless children and youth in Tennessee schools. The local program has since expanded to meet needs of any students considered food insecure, which often includes students living with extended family members without the resources to fully provide for the children. With so much uncertainty in their young lives, food shouldn’t have to be one of them, but, it is.
Many of our county’s working families fall below the state’s poverty level. Although both parents may be working, many are unable to afford extra groceries. The free breakfast and lunch programs provided by the school system are lifesavers, enabling families to stretch their incomes further on life’s necessities. Still, a gap existed for ensuring the students would have enough to eat until the Backpack Program was initiated.
Local partnership programs and the guidance counselors identify at-risk students in grades Pre-K through 12th from all the schools in the county, and the counselors see to it that cinch-sacks filled with food items make it to the students every Friday, from September to May. On average more than 150 bags are given away weekly.
Although partially funded by the federal government, contributions to United Way by area residents, businesses, and churches have enabled the program to thrive.
School board member Diane Neeley said, “As a board member, I appreciate the churches, businesses, and individuals who fill the gap that so many of our students face. Due to the poverty level in Bedford County, programs like the backpack initiative are essential to the wellbeing of our students. There are so many needs met by the school system that the average citizen has no idea about. In addition to free breakfast and lunch for all students, oftentimes personal hygiene items: clothing, school supplies, and more are provided [by the school system]. Guidance counselors do an excellent job recognizing needs and finding resources to combat the needs.” -GN