Rotary Club provides weekend food for Valley kids

Margaret Hurt
Special to BMN

When a big winter storm was predicted earlier this winter, suggesting enough snow to stop school and travel for a significant time, many people made trips to the grocery for the essentials (milk and bread, of course).

But one student at Black Mountain Primary, hearing talk about missing school for several weekdays, was concerned about food. Approaching the school counselor, he asked if there was any food he take home. The counselor immediately contacted Meredith Begley, who coordinates the MANNA Packs for Kids for the Black Mountain Rotary Club. The next day, before the storm hit, the student was among 79 students who received large bags of food, enough to ensure feed them for four days.

Each week, 15 local Rotarians handle the MANNA Packs for Kids tasks at Black Mountain Primary, W.D. Williams Elementary and Black Mountain Elementary. They shop for food, pick up items at MANNA FoodBank, then pack and deliver the bags to school counselors. On Fridays, the counselors discreetly slip the bags into the backpacks of qualifying students.

Each bag hold enough food for three meals, plus snacks. Bags include individually packaged items that often include canned soup, beans and fruit, oatmeal packets, noodles, fresh produce and kid-friendly snacks.

It is not uncommon for students to come to Kelli Pritchard, a counselor at Williams Elementary School, during the week asking for additional food and snacks. “Even though parents may be able to provide the basic food items, snacks are not a high priority, so students often come to school without them,” she said.

Pritchard is thankful for the community support shown to the school (other groups such as Eblen Charities and Hand in Hand and individuals such as Steve Hansel are addressing childhood hunger in the Owen district). The school staff itself is helping the children. Teachers and staff members created a food pantry. Money raised from staff Friday “Dress Down” days, along with donations from the school and community, help support the staff pantry fund.

The MANNA Packs for Kids program began in the Owen school district in 2007. Five years later, as the Black Mountain Rotary Club became more aware of hunger among students, club members expanded the program to reach more students. Volunteer interest grew quickly after a MANNA representative discussed the Packs for Kids program at a weekly club meeting.

Though each bag includes basic lower-cost items, the Owen district program costs $8,000 annually. The money thus far has come from the Black Mountain Rotary Club and the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Valley Endowment Fund.

The MANNA Packs for Kids program serves 16 Western North Carolina counties. During the 2013-14 school year, more than 4,300 food bags were placed in student backpacks. Last winter, MANNA FoodBank celebrated the delivery of the 1 millionth MANNA pack.

“Working families are struggling to regain their foothold in this post-recession economy. The government assistance that many of our clients count on to put food on the table has been delayed, reduced or stopped altogether,” said Beth Stahl, youth programs manager at MANNA FoodBank. “Despite their best efforts, many families can’t afford all the food their children need for healthy, normal development.”

One in four children in the MANNA FoodBank service area does not have access to three meals a day, she said.

For more about the Rotary MANNA Packs for Kids program or becoming involved in the emergency food effort for Valley children, contact Begley at Black Mountain Savings Bank, 669-7991.

“Knowing you had a hand in feeding 80 kids each week, in addition to the appreciation expressed by our participating school counselors, easily makes this one of the most rewarding volunteer experiences I have had the privilege to be part of,” Begley said.