This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.
We hear a lot about “backpack” programs in communities across the country. These programs put food items in the backpacks of children who are experiencing food insecurity on the weekends. One of the benefits of the program is that it helps to ensure that children arrive at school prepared to learn on Monday mornings. The results that have been reported include improved academic performance and decreased behavioral issues.
In Caroline County, 25% of students are suffering from food insecurity. Many of these children rarely get a meal except when they are at school. Studies show that children who don’t eat over the weekend are not alert enough to learn until Wednesday after they begin receiving meals in school. This means these children are losing half of their time in school to hunger. The consequences of childhood hunger are significant, including developmental delays, behavioral and mental health problems, and scoring lower on standardized tests. Nationally, less than 5% of children living in poverty are likely to graduate high school.
In 2015, Caroline County Public Schools (CCPS) launched a “backpack initiative.” On Fridays, children in need are provided with backpacks filled with food enough for two meals over the weekend. The program ensures that these students can eat over the weekend regardless of their circumstances at home.
In 2018, a local businessman, Fred Spence of Provident State Bank, wanted to find a permanent way to address food insecurity for the students throughout Caroline County. He, along with others in Caroline County, founded Caroline Food For Learning as the fundraising arm to support the efforts of the CCPS.
Dave Whaley, a board member of Caroline Food for Learning recalls, “Fred has a passion for this program, and he pulled together an amazing group of people to address this issue.”
Derek Simmons, Director of Student Services with Caroline County Public Schools, comments, “Schools do so much more than just provide a K through 12 education in the content areas. We can be hubs for our communities and support our students and their families. The backpack program and the tremendous fundraising efforts of Food For Learning allow us to do just this. Our families work hard to provide for their children. This program can assist any of them in doing so. Proper nutrition is essential for healthy development.”
When the program started in 2019, Food for Learning raised $93,000 and helped serve 350 students in Pre-K through high school. In 2020, the program grew to 700 students. After COVID-19, the program began serving 1,100 students.
Derek states, “As a member of the Food For Learning board, I recognize the economic challenges present in our community due to the impact of COVID-19. Those economic challenges have led to an increase in the number of students in need of the backpack program. Supporting Food For Learning in their fundraising efforts will continue to help us meet those needs.”
According to Dave, the group sees the CCPS backpack program as an important investment in the community. He adds, “We are excited about the long-term results the program will achieve, including a more productive workforce, better health outcomes, and breaking the cycle of poverty.”
A cadre of volunteers works on distributing the food to students identified with a need. Volunteers include seniors, students seeking service learning hours, teachers, and clients from the Caroline Center and Benedictine School. Dave states, “It takes a real community effort to get these meals to the drop off points where families can pick them up.”
Derek adds, “We have been blessed by tremendous volunteers to continue with the same consistency throughout the school closure even with the increased number of families we are now serving.”
CCPS also coordinates a summer food program, distributing free meals to kids 18 and younger throughout the county, as well as students whose ages go from birth to Pre-K at the Judy Centers and Family Support Center. He adds, “We will continue the backpack program through the summer, just like we did last year. Summer meals will continue to be available as before as well.”
According to Dave, the board hopes to honor the commitment of founder Fred Spence in the coming days as he was the spirit behind the program until he passed away in May. The board of Caroline Food For Learning includes Derek Simmons, CCPS; John Phillips of Sisk Fulfillment; Laura Patrick; Brent Fuchs of Heritage Financial Consultants; Roxanne Wolfe, CCPS Culinary Center; Steve Covey, Choptank Transport; Bill Duffy, Denton Walmart; Ross Harper, Ridgely Police Department; Jeff Powell, Towers Concrete; Dave Whaley, National Property Inspections; and Tom Tyndall, Choptank Electric.
The Food For Learning Fund is a component fund of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation (MSCF), a public 501(c)(3) charity that manages donations and distributes funds for the CCPS backpack program. Donations are 100% tax-deductible and will be used exclusively in Caroline County. Visit carolinefoodforlearning.org to learn more about the program or to make a donation. Questions can also be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can also be made to MSCF/Food for Learning, 102 East Dover Street, Easton, Maryland 21601.