Rowan Rotary, Salvation Army start backpack feeding program at North Middle
By Sarah Campbell
SPENCER – More than 20 students at North Rowan Middle School will go home today with a backpack filled with everything from fruit juice pouches to ingredients to make spaghetti.
The Rowan Rotary Club has partnered with the Salvation Army of Rowan County to supply food for needy families to eat when school’s out.
“Seeing as how a lot of kids in our community need food after school and on weekends, we decided to take on this project,” Rowan Rotary President Melonie Thompson said. “But then we decided we couldn’t do it on our own because supplying 25 kids with food every week gets expensive.”
That’s where the Salvation Army comes in.
Lt. Chasy Morse pulls the food for the backpacks from the agency’s pantry, looking for items that kids can quickly open and cook themselves like Kraft Easy Mac or Ramen noodles.
“I look for any kind of pop-top can that they can pop open, throw in the microwave and eat,” she said. “We want it to be easy, but also filling so that once they eat the meal, they won’t be hungry later.”
Students are sent home with backpacks donated by the Rotary Club filled with items such as tuna, peanut butter and oatmeal.
Morse said the backpacks typically include one meal that should be cooked by an adult.
“It’s not about just meeting the need of the middle school student, it’s about meeting the need of the family,” she said.
Juice is tucked into the backpack as an added treat.
“Everybody has water, but it’s nice even as adults to have something other than that,” Morse said.
The backpacks also include snack items such as granola bars, chips and Wheat Thins.
“We try to meet the need first, and once we meet the need, of course they’re children, so we try to add in a few extra things,” Morse said.
Morse said those interested in donating food for the backpacks can drop off items at the Salvation Army at 620 Bringle Ferry Road.
Items like granola bars, Ramen noodles and Kraft Easy Mac come in to the pantry less frequently but are a good addition to the backpacks.
Monetary donations can also be designated to the program.
“That way we can go out and purchase whatever we need that week,” Morse said.
Every backpack is filled with about $18 worth of food, Morse said.
Thompson said they are sent home each Friday and students return them Monday morning to receive a coupon for a free sandwich or biscuit from Chick-fil-A or Bojangles.
“It’s an incentive to bring the bookbags back every Monday,” she said.
Thompson said the club decided to zero in on the North Rowan Middle after a presentation from Communities in Schools site coordinators Patti Secreast and Emily Taylor.
“We told them about the needs that we have seen here,” Secreast said. “One of the things that we noticed was that the elementary school had a food program, but once the kids got to middle school we didn’t have such a program.”
Secreast said the school had parents calling to request assistance with food.
“We would always refer them to local agencies where we knew they could get the food, but there was usually a transportation issue,” she said. “We thought if we could provide a backpack to some of the students who needed assistance, it would be a great benefit to families.”
The school’s 80 percent poverty rate, based on the number of students receiving free or reduced lunches, is the highest it’s ever been, Secreast said.
“This is my 40th year here, and we’ve always been a school with a lot of needs, but this is the worst it’s been,” she said. “There are a lot of parents who are working but just aren’t making enough money to cover everything.”
When the Rotary Club contacted Secreast to let her know its members were going to start the backpack program, she immediately called the families who had previously asked for help and zeroed in on others who could use the food.
“The kids are excited about it, and the families are very appreciative,” she said.
Thompson said the backpacks are a nondescript way to send the food home with students.
“We didn’t want to draw attention to those who are receiving them,” she said.
A seventh-grader who has been receiving the backpack each week said it helps her mother, who has a total of four children.
“We always get fed, but sometimes she doesn’t have enough money for extra things,” she said.The girl said her mother no longer purchases granola bars or juice pouches, so it will be nice to be able to enjoy those things again.
Thompson said the Rotary Club and Salvation Army are also providing student-athletes at North Rowan with a snack each day.
“Most of the children are fed (lunch) at about 10:30 in the morning, and if they are athletes they may not arrive home until 6 that night,” she said. “So we give them snacks so they’ll have a little nourishment before they get home.”
Thompson said this is a project any group can take on.
“We’re looking forward to seeing people and other volunteers taking a look at their school system and hopefully starting backpack programs like this in their own hometown,” she said.
Secreast said the students will be paying the good deed forward by participating in service projects throughout the year.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.