Friday, November 09, 2012

Demand puts children's food program on hold

Future of Mannapacks is unknown.

Thousands of children in our area go hungry on weekends and during holidays.

It may come as a surprise that for many children, the meals they get through their schools' meals program are their primary food source.

"If you hear some of these stories from the teachers saying that when the kids come to school they're hungry, and a lot of times when the kids come back to school the next morning, the last time they've eaten was at school the day before," said David Clark.

Clark is head of a multi-denominational group of concerned citizens who are part of Mannapacks, a program that sends backpacks full of food home with children on weekends and holidays. At this time, the program serves several Vinton elementary schools. There also is a fledgling program at Goodview Elementary.

"We are professionals, businesses and from different denominations," explained Clark. "We care for children and their well-being."

Clark, a Botetourt County resident, is mirroring the efforts of his father, who started similar programs at Body Camp Elementary and Bedford Primary. It was the thought of children going hungry that inspired volunteer Jodi Wade.

"Not a lot of people realize that there are a lot of children that, unless they're at school, they're not eating," said Wade. "Weekends, holidays and summer breaks are all times of great distress for those children because they know there's not going to be any food."

Last year was the first for the Mannapack program at Goodview Elementary. Faculty and administrators identified as many as 20 children to participate, Clark said. That number did not match up with other schools, he said.

In the 2011-12 school year. 140 students at W.E. Cundiff in Vinton received Mannapacks. Another program is helping about 100 students at Herman L. Horn in Vinton. Mays Memorial United Methodist in Vinton offers a backpack program at Stewartsville Elementary in Bedford County.

More than 150 children there take part in that program.

So Wade lobbied to open up the Mannapack program to the entire Goodview Elementary population. Letters sent home identified more than 150 students who could benefit from the program.

"Last year we did it on our own, and we did alright," said Clark. "We carried over $5,000 to use this year, but the size of the group we're looking at dealing with this year has more than doubled."

The need, in part, has delayed the start of the Mannapack program this school year. The organization is seeking the help of Manna Ministries in Roanoke. From its Vinton storefront, Manna Ministries serves thousands of people each month by providing food, pet food and toiletries.

On Nov. 5, the two organizations met to iron out the details of bringing Mannapacks under the umbrella of Manna Ministries. The Manna Ministries board of directors will make the final decision on the matter at itsNov. 19 meeting, according to Greg Elliot, director of Manna Ministries.

"The goal of the program would be to provide each child with a backpack with enough food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for each of the days they are away from school," said Elliot. "We would serve pretty much anybody we could touch, Bedford County, the fringe of Franklin County. We don't have geographic boundaries. It's just a matter of where we can reach and where we have the cooperation of administrators to work with us in developing the programs."

If Mannapacks merges with Manna Ministries, Elliot said it is likely the backpack program would not start until the next school year because of the details, such as determining a criterion for identifying students in need and logistics that need to be addressed.

If federal money is used to get food for the program, then federal guidelines would need to be followed. If only private sources are used, then Manna Ministries can set its own guidelines.

The fact of the matter is there is a great need. If the program increased 10-fold, it would only scratch the surface of the need, Elliot said.