“Initially we started off with 100 kindergartners and first-graders, figuring they are the most vulnerable.” Now, says Brother Virgil Siefker, “Youth Bertie” in Windsor, N.C. (Bertie County), provides food for 200 schoolchildren. Bertie County, in the remote coastal plain, is one area where Glenmary works to develop a permanent Catholic presence.
Brother Virgil’s program is for young students who are food insecure. They depend on the school for food, twice a day. About 86% of children in the county qualify for food assistance at school, he explains. Bertie County has 22% poverty.
“The school counselors told us stories of children going home on Friday, and they don’t know where they’re going to be—with their mother, father or grandparents—and they don’t know whether they’re going to have food over the weekend. They were coming to school on Monday morning with low energy, unable really to engage with any curriculum until they had a meal,” says Brother Virgil.These children were going hungry on the weekends.
Brother Virgil, with the help of Glenmary Brother Curt Kedley, along with folks from a number of local churches, set up a “backpack” program to get a package of food to the children eachFriday.
“Most of the food comes in bags from the food bank in Albemarle, about 50 miles away,” explains Brother Virgil. “We buy fruit—maybe apples, bananas and the like—to supplement that.” They buy the food at a discount from the food bank, and fruit at a local grocery store. “It costs about $180 per student for the entire school year,” he explains.
On Fridays, a distribution spot is set up outside of each five elementary schools in the county. Parents or other family members drive through a parking-lot line to pick up a bag. The grocery bag includes maybe two drinks, two PowerBars, two cereals, maybe a few cans of SpaghettiOs, and fruit. (By the way, there are no actual backpacks. “It’s an anomaly!” says Brother Virgil.) The 4-H Club and high school students put the grocery bags together each Friday. Then the Parks and Recreation Commission delivers the food to each of five schools. It’s a community effort.
“We rely on donations to buy the food,” says Brother Virgil. That would be about $3,600 per school-year.
“During the summer, local churches try to fill the hunger gap.”
Brother Virgil, a quiet man, is typically understated when asked about what difference his program makes in the children’s lives: “The program gives the children a little more security, that they’ll have some food over the weekend.”
The program will restart later this summer, whether school does.