Glenmary brother helps feed hungry students

Posted: 3/8/2017

Many of the elementary students in Bertie County, N.C., are eager to come to school. It is the only place they are guaranteed a meal.

More than 82 percent of the district’s population qualify for the federal government’s free and reduced lunch program, which means that every child in a Bertie County school receives a free breakfast and lunch.

If they miss a day, they miss a meal.

“Even if they show up late, we make sure they go through the line and get breakfast,” said Sandra Smith, Windsor Elementary School’s social worker. “A lot of them don’t have a lot of food in their homes, and they are more equipped to learn once they have eaten.”

Bertie County, home to Glenmary Home Missioners’ Holy Spirit Catholic Church, has 34 percent food instability, one of the highest percentages in North Carolina. Food instability is a lack of access to enough food or a limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods, according to the website of Feeding America, a national network of food banks. Food insecurity could also mean that within the home, there is a tradeoff between paying for housing or medical costs and purchasing food.

Recognizing the need for food-based programs in their community, Bertie County Commissioner Ron Wesson and Dr. Karen Ray of St. Thomas Episcopal Church began assembling a team — the Backpack Board of Youth Bertie — two years ago to investigate adding a backpack program to their schools. The program would focus on eliminating hunger concerns for young children.

One key team member was Brother Virgil Siefker, who performs outreach ministry in Bertie County. Over the last five years, his work has centered on nutrition – providing food to nearly 500 families through the Good Shepherd Food Pantry, delivering water pitchers to residents at Three Rivers Nursing Home and now the backpack program.

All of Brother Virgil’s work is ecumenical, working with representatives from multiple churches and various entities in the community to address the county’s needs. Food insecurity has become one of the largest concerns, because Bertie County is one of the poorest counties in the state. It has one of the highest rates of unemployment and one of the lowest average household incomes.

“Most of the children are relying on their families to take care of them, but the problem is they do not always know where they will be staying over the weekend or whether they will have food there,” Brother Virgil said. “This is a way to help them out regardless of where they stay.”

For $180 per child annually, the committee provides each child a weekly package of two breakfasts, two lunches, healthy snacks and fresh fruit. Volunteers, including Brother Virgil and students in the Bertie County 4-H and Community Service Club, gather every Thursday to divide the food, provided by the Food Bank of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, N.C., into grocery bags for each student. They add fruit purchased at a discount from the local grocery store to give children healthy options. Then, the elementary teachers place the bags in the children’s backpacks on Fridays.
The program currently benefits elementary school students, but Ron wants to expand the program.

“On the weekends, especially when you reach the end of the month and run out of food stamps or run out of money, there is a food shortage,” Ron said. “The small kids are the least able to fend for themselves, which is why we started with elementary students, but we have a need for all kids throughout our community.”

So far, the program feeds 155 children in Bertie County’s four public schools and one charter school, but the committee hopes to expand the program to at least 175 children by the end of the school year.

Growing the program is desperately needed, Sandra said. The school counselors and social workers in the district identify the children most in need of the backpack program. The waiting list is extensive, and many children are desperate for food.

“Many kids come up to me all week and tell me they are hungry, so we know they need the backpack,” Sandra said. “Starting on Monday, they ask me, ‘Am I going to get the backpack on Friday?’ Their little faces light up when they get it. They are so full of joy.”

The program is run by volunteers, and four “founders” each give $1,000 annually to cover administrative costs, so all outside donations can directly buy food.

“Our program is unique, because it is really grassroots,” Ron said. “We have churches that support three kids, individuals who support five kids. People told me to ask the (county) for help, and I said, ‘No, we can do this ourselves.’ We wanted to prove that when there is a problem, people will come together to make a difference, and we have proven that that is true.”

Photo: Brother Virgil Siefker (second from right) and members of the Bertie County 4-H and Community Service Club assemble packages that will feed more than 150 children in the area over the weekend.

This story first appeared in the February 2017 Boost-A-Month-Club newsletter.