Photo by Keith McCoy
Rocky Ridge Elementary School Principal Dr. Dil Uswatte and Riverchase United Methodist Church Associate Pastor Tyler Christiansen are partnering up to launch a weekend backpack program at the elementary school this fall.
For Rocky Ridge Elementary School Principal Dil Uswatte, one childhood memory stands out vividly.
She was in second grade and was sent to the grocery store with a bag of change to buy a loaf of bread. As she was checking out, she was informed she was 25 cents too short.
“I immediately just froze,” Uswatte said. “But then the woman behind me slid a quarter forward. I left the store quickly. I never got the chance to thank her that day.”
It is that personal connection that has Uswatte passionately involved in fighting child hunger in Hoover City Schools.
In October 2014, 24.5 percent of total enrolled students qualified for free and reduced lunches. As of June 2015, that number has grown to 25.9 percent. Director of Child Nutrition Melinda Bonner said she has seen slow but steady growth.
“We’ve known there was a need, but there hasn’t been a consistency in addressing it,” said Uswatte.
To bridge the gap between the schools and community, Greg Bishop founded Hoover Helps in 2014. The nonprofit organization engages with local churches, schools and other organizations to align community resources to fight childhood hunger through weekend backpack programs.
Bishop said many people are not aware that child hunger exists in an affluent community such as Hoover.
“There is a significant need, and it’s easy to overlook these kids,” said Bishop. “The reality is there are a lot of kids that don’t have food to eat over the weekend.”
Bishop said that the student populations at three schools — Rocky Ridge Elementary School, Trace Crossings Elementary School and Green Valley Elementary — each have nearly 50 percent free and reduced lunches.
“Hunger leads to these students not performing well in the classroom. They also have frequent visits to the nurse’s office,” Bishop said. “If we address this problem, tests scores will go up, property values could rise as a result. A lot of good things can happen. We need to meet the basic needs of our children.”
Several churches in Hoover have partnered with local schools through Hoover Helps to provide food in the children’s backpacks to take home on Fridays. Bishop said it costs $180 to feed a child over the weekend for the duration of one school year.
Riverchase United Methodist Church Associate Pastor Tyler Christiansen wanted to get a food program off the ground because of his past involvement in the ministry. He met with Bishop and Uswatte in September to get things started.
“It was really nice timing of having like minds coming together,” said Christiansen.
Starting this fall, RUMC will have food delivered directly from the Central Alabama Food Bank to the church. Church members will build the bags the first Wednesday of every month; these packing nights are open to the public. Volunteers will then deliver the food for distribution on Fridays to Rocky Ridge Elementary School, where it will be placed discreetly in the children’s backpacks during recess.
Jon Barnacastle, programs coordinator at the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama, is thankful for organizations like Hoover Helps addressing food insecurities.
“Kids are the most vulnerable to food insecurity. It’s helpful to see Hoover Helps jumping in and fighting for our kids,” said Barnacastle. “This is mobilizing the community and leading the charge in childhood hunger.”
Other churches involved with the various child hunger programs include Hunter Street Baptist Church, Shades Crest Baptist Church and Shades Mountain Independent Church. Green Valley Baptist Church operates a food pantry that provides food donated from the food bank to 125 children at Green Valley Elementary School.
Bishop hopes that during the upcoming school year, Hoover Helps will gain traction, and he eventually plans to cast his net outside of Hoover. For now, the main focus is making the community aware of the problem of childhood hunger that lies just beyond their front doorstep.
“People can debate about the best way to feed hungry children, but what is not up for debate is whether or not we should feed hungry children,” Christiansen said. “This is a sign the community cares about our children. It’s faith being put into action, and it’s exciting to see. My hope is that every kid in Hoover will be fed over the weekend, and childhood hunger will be a thing of the past.”
For more information or to get involved, contact Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit hooverhelps.org.