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Next Steps for Food Backpack Programs

On March 16, 2013 over 60 providers, school administrators and community stakeholders involved in food backpack programs met at a workshop hosted by Galilee UMC in Sterling, VA. The purpose was to share lessons-learned and explore possible next steps in serving Loudoun County Public School (LCPS) students who are facing food insecurity and other needs. In preparation for the workshop, Embrace Loudoun developed and administered a survey of LCPS principals, school liaisons and other involved personnel to obtain feedback on how well needs were being met, to seek suggestions for improving service and to strengthen community partnerships. The following presentation summarizes the survey findings and statuses coverage.

Embrace Loudoun’s analysis concludes much progress has been made, but there is significantly more work ahead.

Food backpacks are being provided as weekend and holiday supplements to meals being provided free and at reduced prices during school days. The demand has been steadily increasing in the last ten years over which the population of students qualifying for free and reduced meals has increased from 4,339 (11.5% of student census) to 11,911 (17.2% of student census) currently.

These statistics are markers of poverty. Deficits in food are often reflective of other needs.  Even in Loudoun County, VA with median annual family income of $119k, some families are struggling to thrive – with compromised dreams and hope.  These broader physical, emotional and spiritual needs drive Embrace Loudoun’s mission of establishing Caring Connections that lead to Changed Lives.  Embrace Loudoun works with partnering schools, shelters, homes for the elderly and churches in helping neighbors in need.  These neighbors are connected with advocates that become consistent relational interfaces or life coaches.  Through these relationships, we hope to help our neighbors address the underlying causes that led to needs like hunger.

Approximately 60% of the 82 LCPS have programs supported mostly by local churches, but also by businesses and individuals.  The collective coverage is estimated at 23% or ~2,000 backpacks assuming the ‘free’ population of 8,942.  This represents a gap of ~6,900 backpacks if the entire ‘free’ population was served.   There are 4.2% or 2,868 students living in families with incomes below the Federal Poverty Standard.  Assuming the schools giving highest priority here, the gap is ~900 backpacks.  Thus, the programs are meeting ~70% of the most critical needs.

The survey indicated high ratings of the appeal, quality, freshness, quantities and kid friendliness. Some respondents indicated a need for improved nutritional balance – less sugar and processed foods and more fresh and high protein foods. Providers received high ratings in execution of their programs including planning, communications and coordination with the schools, responsiveness to feedback, packaging and delivery, etc. Some respondents indicated a need for greater sensitivity to special needs (allergies and ethnic preferences).  The programs seemed particularly effective in elementary schools where students have fewer concerns about anonymity with peers.  In some middle schools and particularly in high schools, this issue was highlighted as needing further assessment.  One idea offered at the workshop was to explore possibilities for a voucher type program.  High school students would pickup prepaid, prepackaged food directly at their local grocery stores.

The workshop found significant opportunities to meet a wider range of needs:

  • English Language Learning (ELL) for parents
  • Remedial one-on-one tutoring
  • Reading, math & homework buddies
  • Meeting needs of families, e.g. physical, emotional, medical, transportation, vocational, etc.
  • Adult skills & parenting instruction
  • Staff appreciation & support initiatives
  • Special interest clubs or sports clinics
  • Facilities & grounds improvements
  • Thanksgiving meals
  • Christmas gifts
  • Summer camps

Additionally, school officials indicated that some students living outside of walking distance sometimes lacked transportation to school when special circumstances occurred in their families.

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