Better Access to Nutritious Meals

06 Feb 2022

 Volunteers help Food Bank improve area health

By RAY LINVILLE  »  Photos by Brandon Williams

More than simply providing food to help the food insecure in our area, the Sandhills Branch of the Food Bank is working to improve the nutrition of people, particularly children, in underserved communities an important goal.

To help children understand the importance of good nutrition, the Food Bank organizes Kid Cafes, which provide nutrition education to hungry children while it also provides free and prepared nutritious meals. Children who participate are taught to prepare nutritious meals for themselves with minimal supervision.

Aimed at children ages 15 and under, it is a comprehensive program to end childhood hunger through after-school programs and is operated by community agencies. The Food Bank brings community partners together and trains volunteers, supplies food for nutritious meals, and assists in planning and carrying out education, nutrition, and enrichment programs. 

These programs are quite well known in the Sandhills by many without realizing that the Food Bank is a major participant in their success. Probably the best-known program in this area is conducted by the Boys & Girls Club of the Sandhills that offers young people a variety of fun and productive activities that concentrate on study skills, self-esteem, leadership, good health, and social responsibility. In addition to receiving tutoring, engaging in physical activities, and doing homework, the children are also served a full-course meal.

“The Food Bank has been a major sponsor for many years,” says Michael Cotten, director of the Food Bank’s Sandhills Branch. “It’s one of the biggest impacts we have in the community. We assist in providing hot meals to kids after school with the Boys & Girls Club.”

In neighboring Richmond County, a similar program is at the Leak Street Center in Rockingham where school children receive a free nutritious meal in an after-school program supported by Cotten’s branch. “This hot meal is provided by the Food Bank,” he adds.

The Sandhills Branch is one of the six branches of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which provides food for people in need in 34 counties of the state and is the state’s largest food bank in terms of total food distributed. In this area, nearly 600,000 people face hunger and are considered, food insecure. The four counties that the Sandhills Branch serves are Moore, Lee, Richmond, and Scotland.

Another important nutrition component of the Sandhills Branch is its BackPack Pals Program. “This program was actually started by a volunteer, Linda Hubbard, to provide some type of nutrition to school kids on weekends,” Cotten says.

Hubbard, who received the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award for Moore County, directed the program for 10 years. She started the program in the school where she worked and initially served only 24 children. By 2015, it was providing meals to more than 1,000 children throughout the Moore County School System.

BackPack Pals specifically targets children who can benefit from better access to nutritious meals. Once a week, children in the program are given special backpacks that are filled with nonperishable food to help meet their weekend nutrition needs. These packs, assembled in the branch warehouse by volunteers usually on a Thursday, contain about 10 items that includes whole grains, protein, and fruit.

For the Sandhills Branch, volunteers are the heart and soul of its mission. They are indispensable in making sure that nutritious food reaches people in need, especially in times of crisis such as a natural disaster or pandemic. Last year volunteers at the branch served more than 9,000 hours as they distributed more than 10 million meals.

Hubbard, who passed away in 2017, remains the gold standard for volunteers at the Sandhills Branch. “Volunteers are at the core of everything we do. Because we have only seven staff people at the branch, we couldn’t do what we do without volunteers,” says Cotten.

“We’ve been greatly affected by the pandemic. Many of our volunteers are seniors who have to stay home. We were hurt in the short term, but we’ve gradually begun to pick back up to pre-Covid numbers. Sometimes we get requests from corporate and school groups to volunteer. It takes usually 35 to 40 volunteers to operate the BackPack program,” he adds.

The Sandhills Branch was one of the first to offer a weekend program, which has now been expanded to others where it is known as the Weekend Power Pack Program. “Its significance is that it feeds kids who benefit from free and reduced meals when school is not in session. Kids can’t learn on an empty stomach,” Cotten says with emphasis.

Planning is also well underway for another iteration of the Kids Summer Meals Program that is structured to assist children when instruction has ended, and they no longer have access to the nutritious breakfasts and lunches served during the school year. This program helps children in low-income areas to receive nutritious meals during long school vacations. Schools, government agencies, and community and faith-based organizations participate in this program by running a site or being a sponsor. 

Nutrition is such an important focus of the Food Bank that it has three nutritionists on its staff. Its teaching kitchen conducts cooking demonstrations and offers nutrition education to show how to use healthful foods like whole grains, fresh produce, low-fat dairy, and lean meats. It also has several gardens to showcase skills for growing food and to increase the supply of fresh produce that it distributes. 

Through its partnerships, education, and programs, the Food Bank helps communities to overcome hunger. As it provides food to people in need, it also is building solutions to end hunger. It is a member of Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger relief organization and the nation’s largest food bank network with more than 200 food banks.

To receive periodic updates from the Food Bank, sign up to receive its e-news by registering on its website. If you are interested in sponsoring a food drive, volunteering, or donating to the Food Bank, contact Cotten at 910-692-5959, ext. 2401.  

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