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Countywide feeding program designed to unite Upshur County Schools families around the dinner table

BUCKHANNON – One local organization hopes their efforts to centralize food distribution for Upshur County students will turn bringing boxes home into families breaking bread together.

Vanessa Perkins, food pantry coordinator for the Foundation for Better Schools in Upshur County, addressed the Rotary of Buckhannon-Upshur Club Tuesday virtually about the foundation’s goal of unifying families through passing out similar food boxes to all Upshur County students – regardless of age – and therefore, encouraging more families to eat dinner together.

A U.S. military veteran, mom, wife, PTO officer and community chair of the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan, Perkins said she’s also a member of the nonprofit, the Foundation for Better Schools in Upshur County.

One of the Better Schools Foundation’s first initiatives when it was revived last year was to organize one countywide food backpack program. Previously, various churches and civic organizations sponsored assembling the backpacks for different schools, meaning what was packed often varied from school to school and student to student, and as Perkins explained, sometimes from sibling to sibling.

“Our goals in putting together one backpack program was one, recognizing the need and two, to unify it as a family bag,” she said. “Sometimes, families would have children getting very different items if they were in different age groups or attended different schools, so we wanted to promote family unity and family meals. This way, we know that all the kids were getting the same thing. We wanted to make it one family meal and promote a family-meal environment.”

So far, Upshur County students seem to like that concept, Perkins said.

“A lot of them really look forward to eating together with their families and that didn’t happen previously on the weekend – they got the bags and each child in a family ate whatever was in them,” she said.

Another perk of orchestrating a centralized program is that it’s easier to obtain grants from funding agencies when it’s a countywide organization applying for money.

The Foundation for Better Schools in Upshur County works with the Mountaineer Food Bank and contracted with Multitude Foods to distribute 2,088 backpacks a month, which are assembled in the school warehouse near Tennerton Elementary School.

“We have 3,600 students enrolled in our program,” Perkins said.

She said one statistic is particularly distressing: 86.7 percent of children in Upshur County Schools come from homes classified as low-income.

In addition, Perkins said 462 students during the 2019-2020 school year were categorized as homeless, which sometimes means the child does not live with their mother or father and is also not in the custody of the State of West Virginia, she explained.

“Of those 462, about 40 are truly homeless and are literally couch-surfing, going from home-to-home or from friend-to-friend to live,” she said.

Perkins also discussed the underpinnings of her interest in food distribution.

“I’m very passionate about the food program in Upshur County because when kids are starving, they’re focused more on where their food is coming from than on their academics,” she said. “[Multiple studies have shown] that kids who are hungry can’t focus and can’t learn as well in school.”

Right now, the Foundation for Better Schools is relying on CARES Act money to provide the five-day foodpacks, but Perkins said she’s anxious about what will happen “when the funding and the COVID money goes away.”

“If we return back to normal school 5 days a week … we will rely back on the Foundation and the donations and money obtained through grant writing, whereas now, we’re relying on COVID money for the food,” she said. “When it’s not a time of COVID, when we’re not in a pandemic, Upshur County Schools cannot provide us the money to support this program.”

The mobile food pantry set up every other month at the National Guard Armory/Event Center at Brushy Fork and the backpack program “feed into each other,” Perkins said.

“It allows us to identify needs of families and provides an opportunity to form a relationship or bond with these children,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for students not to have to worry about where their next meal is going to come from, so they can focus on education and learning. It takes away the burden from the teachers and puts it more on us.”

“These programs are succeeding, but they do cost money and take commitment,” she added. “Our biggest concern is, when that [COVID-related] financial support ends, the need for what we do is going to be even greater. If we go back to school, I can almost promise you that we’ll be packing 3,000 backpacks if the five-day boxes go away.”

For more information about how to help or donate, call 304-439-0568 or visit the foundation’s Facebook page here.

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