by Kate Evans
The Morgan County Backpacks Program began 10 years ago and has touched the lives of hundreds of county children each year by providing a bag of nonperishable, nourishing food and snacks for them for the weekend.
The Backpacks Program was started by a committee of community parent volunteers, Morgan County Starting Points staff and school personnel after school staff said they were seeing many Morgan County kids who were coming to school obviously hungry.
The group began providing food bags in January 2012 to around 200 students who school personnel felt would benefit from the program.
Susan Caperton, Backpack Project organizer, said that the number of children served by the program has ebbed and flowed over the years-less than and more than 300 a week- with the peak of 374 kids a week occurring several years ago, Caperton said. The Backpack program currently serves around 250 kids, said Starting Points Executive Director Audrey Morris.
The Morgan County Backpack Program serves pre-K through 12th grade children in all county schools and has included children from Early Head Start for the past several years.
Caperton estimated that the total number of bags of food they’ve provided since the program started is 120,000 bags-300 bags a week for 40 weeks per year for 10 years. She noted that the estimate didn’t include food bags they provided to kids at the Energy Express and Camp MoCo summer programs.
Caperton said that the number of food bags provided to children reflects the level of need along with the level of community support.
“We’ve seen a constant need,” Caperton emphasized.
Caperton said teachers say that the kids are so excited about what’s in their food bag and that they look forward to getting them.
The Backpack Program is a volunteer-run program. Volunteers pack the bags and unload food deliveries, Caperton said. They get the food bags to the schools and the schools get them to the kids that are at most risk of going hungry on the weekend.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve shifted from a large Thursday morning gathering of volunteers packing food bags to having small groups of family members or closely connected friends or community members packing bags on various weekdays.
Food is a big challenge for a lot of county families. Kids can’t concentrate and focus on school if they’re hungry, Caperton noted. They appreciate that kids get free meals in school.
Starting Points Executive Director Audrey Morris said that child hunger is still a major problem. People still don’t have enough food and food insecurity is still a struggle for families. Food gets pushed way down on the list of priorities after rent/ mortgage, utilities and car repairs.
Kids that regularly don’t get enough nutritious food to eat have a higher level of behavioral, emotional and academic problems and are more aggressive and anxious, Morris said.
Morris said the Morgan County Backpack Program will receive $5,000 from state Cares Act funding for agencies that partner with Mountaineer Food Bank. The program has received Cares Act funding several times over the last two years along with other COVID-related relief monies.
The Tom and Virginia Seeley Foundation has contributed to the Backpacks program every year since it began, Morris said. Bill Lands and the FAST organization supported tuna fish for the Backpacks program for many years.
Starting Points is the fiscal agent for the Morgan County Backpacks Program.
How people can help
People can mail financial donations to Morgan County Starting Points at 106 Sand Mine Road, Berkeley Springs, WV 25411. Make checks payable to Starting Points but put Morgan County Backpacks in the check memo line.
Donate nonperishable food items for the Morgan County Backpacks Program. Drop boxes are located at Valley Health Fitness Center and Tri-State Community Health Center, said Morris. People can also bring food donations to Widmyer Elementary, Warm Springs Intermediate School and Starting Points.
Backpack food donations
Desired food donations include granola bars/fruit and grain bars, macaroni and cheese, Cup of Noodles, canned soups, Ramen Noodles, chili with beans, ravioli/Spaghettios, (pop tops are preferred), baked beans, juice boxes, peanut butter, fruit cups, non-refrigerated milk/chocolate milk, bottled water, applesauce cups and individual packs of raisins/dried fruit.
Other requested foods are individual instant oatmeal, individual cereals, pop tarts, fruit snacks, cheese and crackers, peanut butter crackers, microwave popcorn, bottled water, pudding cups and individual pretzels, chips, cookies and crackers.
It’s a great group of people that have volunteered and supported the program, Caperton said. They include community members, school administrators, teachers, guidance counselors and cafeteria workers. All the county schools have been great to work with. It’s amazing after 10 years that the program is still going strong, she said.
The community in general –individuals, churches and businesses — has been extremely generous to allow them to continue the Backpacks Program for ten years, Morris said.
“If there’s a way to help a family feed hungry kids, we’re going to find a way to do it,” Caperton said.