TENNERTON – A local nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the public school system in Upshur County has more than $25,000 to fund a weekend food backpack program, but the absence of a centralized countywide distribution through schools this year has left the group looking for alternative ways to get food to local kids.
During the public comment portion of the Nov. 7 Upshur County Board of Education meeting, Don Nestor, the president and a founding member of the Foundation for Better Schools in Upshur County, told board members, Superintendent Christy Miller and Assistant Superintendent Russ Collett that the group has more than $27,000 to fund a centralized weekend backpack program.
The weekend backpack program provides students in need of food over school breaks with easy-to-fix meals like pop-top soup, Spaghetti-Os, fruit cups and more so they don’t go hungry. In previous years, the program was countywide; now, it’s up to individual schools, and the number of backpacks going out each week has dropped 70% as a result.
“We’ve tried to find out what’s been going on in the schools because it’s been an adjustment,” Nestor said.
Residents established the Foundation in 1997 to aid in the betterment of Upshur County public schools and reconstituted it in 2020 amid the pandemic. Its first project was to assist with the countywide weekend backpack program, essentially uniting several backpack programs serving district schools under one umbrella.
Following the state takeover, the Foundation is no longer the centralized distributor of weekend backpacks, but Nestor has attended multiple Upshur County Board of Education meetings since July to offer administrators assistance. At the latest meeting, Nestor told the board he’d written letters to the Communities in Schools personnel at each school, except the high school, where one has not yet been hired.
“We sent a letter to them simply saying, ‘Here’s our application for a grant; here’s the process. We have a need for that; we have some funds available,’” Nestor said.
If Communities in Schools personnel know of a need that can’t be funded any other way – even one outside of the weekend backpack program – they should fill out the application, have it signed by the principal of the school and then send it to the Foundation for Better Schools in Upshur County.
When the Foundation’s board OKs a school’s application, they bring it to the Central Office for approval.
Board Vice President Jan Craig asked if there was a timeline for the use of the Foundation’s funds to support the backpack program.
“There’s not a timeline,” Nestor responded. “We have a little over $27,000, and just this past month, we got another check for $300 from someone who’s been a donator on a regular basis for the backpacks, so that money is just designated for the backpack program.”
Although there’s no deadline, “we also don’t want to not use the funds if the kids have a need,” he added.
State Farm Agent Kelley Tierney, vice president of the Foundation, has collected over 6,000 cans of soup to be used in the backpack program, Nestor said.
“She’s anxious to work with the schools, but she’s also trying to work with the Parish House, too, if they have requests,” Nestor told the board. “We want to get [backpacks] into the hands of kids because if they need it on weekends, we want to make sure they get it.”
Isaac Casto, executive director of the Upshur Cooperative Parish, said the entity is attempting to cobble together a weekend backpack program amid other holiday food distributions for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“Essentially, what’s happened with the takeover by the state is that the backpack program isn’t happening this year, and I don’t think a lot of people know that,” Casto said Monday. “The bottom line for us is that it’s a gap in service that’s just not being provided anymore.”
The Parish House isn’t currently equipped with sufficient space or resources to execute a consistent weekly backpack program, but it’s doing its best to get food into the hands of students on the weekends.
“The more we thought about it, the more we realized we can’t kind of idly sit by and let this gap of service continue; we’re probably in the best position to take it over,” Casto said. “With us being one of the mission projects of the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, this is a big component of what we do.”
Casto said the Parish House has found some creative ways to do that because the Buckhannon-Upshur community is small.
“Right now, we’re working on filling that gap in service,” he said. “It might be kind of messy this year, but we want to do it in a way that’s going to be sustainable over time, and next year, we hope to have a more solidified plan in place.”
“We’re one of the handful of places in the county already set up with Mountaineer Food Bank, and they have their own backpack buying program, so we can get individual servings in bulk — we can get those sorts of things,” he added.
During his public comments at the board meeting, Nestor said centralizing the distribution of weekend backpacks ensures they’re distributed in proportion to the need.
“Some of the schools may be very successful in asking businesses to contribute, but some schools may not, and so what we’re trying to do is meet that need,” Nestor said.
Last year, the Foundation distributed about 450 backpacks districtwide every weekend, but there are only about 125-150 going out this school year.
“We know schools have those needs out there – some more than others – and we want to work as equitably as we can to help them,” Nestor said.
Nestor said the cooperation of the Central Office would help ensure efforts are not replicated – i.e., there’s not already money in the budget to cover the backpack program or other initiatives.
“We want to try to be as efficient as we can, but also as helpful as we can,” Nestor said. “We wanted to, again, offer our help in any way we could fit in. Our idea at the Foundation is we don’t want to try to fit in places we can’t help; we just want to be there when we are [needed].”