Note: This story appears in the Sunday, Nov. 19 newspaper on Page A1. 

Now in its third year, the Pride Pack program at Trimble Local Schools continues to give impoverished students food to take home on the weekends.

What began in 2014 as just an idea has now spread into similar programs at all five school districts in Athens County.

Jared Butcher, a professor emeritus of chemistry from Ohio University, helped launched Trimble’s Pride Pack program at the start of the 2015-16 school year. He says he was bored during retirement, so when he heard about food insecurity in Athens County, he wanted to do something about it.

“I thought ‘we should have one of these in every school in the county,’” Butcher said. “I like the idea of feeding kids on the weekend.”

The project was a success, and became the pilot program for spreading the backpack program to other schools in the county. Nelsonville Food Cupboard now operates a backpack program for Nelsonville-York Local Schools. Athens City Schools and the Federal Hocking Local School District both operate school pantries, while the Alexander Local School District operates a similar program called “Blessings in a Backpack.”

So far in 2017, 2,063 packs have been distributed through Pride Packs alone, which is the equivalent of 10,315 meals.

But the need is still great. Asti Payne, development and community relations coordinator for the Southeast Ohio Foodbank, noted that poverty and hunger in southeast Ohio is a continuous issue.

“Hunger is a rampant problem in southeast Ohio, and food insecurity is even greater among children in our communities. One in four children do not have enough food to eat,” she said in an email. “Trimble Pridepacks helps to address some of the meal gaps that exists when school is not in session and children do not have access to free breakfasts or lunches they would receive when school is in.”

In 2016, almost 80 percent of Trimble Local School District students qualified for free or reduced lunches, leading the district to offer free lunches for all students. The Pride Pack program feeds students outside of school, which school officials say helps them focus and learn while they’re in school.

The program has previously served upwards of 250 elementary and middle school students, but this year it has since changed to only serve elementary students as the program was not effectively helping the older children. Nonetheless, 80 kids are still receiving bags of food on a bi-weekly basis.

Butcher noted secrecy while distributing the food is necessary, especially for middle school students, because of the stigma attached to receiving free food. Emily Smith and Becky Handa, Trimble Local School District’s caseworkers, are working to fight that stigma.

“We live in a very impoverished area and we were hearing from the students that they wouldn’t have a meal until they came back to school,” Handa said. “But we’re as discrete as we possibly can be when we distribute.”

Butcher continues to work on the program, bringing totes to the school when supplies run out and working to raise funds and awareness of the program. He estimates that between volunteers from First United Methodist Church and from the Southeast Ohio Foodbank, more than 100 people are involved behind the scenes with the program.

Statewide attention has been given to the Pride Pack program, with Butcher receiving one of Molina Healthcare of Ohio’s Community Champion awards for his contributions to the community.

“Molina selected Jed Butcher as one of our Community Champions because we recognize that if foundational elements of health – such as hunger – are not addressed, it is much more difficult for us to achieve our mission of providing high quality health care to those in need,” said Ami Cole, president of Molina Healthcare. The company also donated $1,000 towards the program.

Butcher names funding as one of the hardest parts of running the program.

“Currently, we are seeking funding for Trimble PridePacks in the 2018-19 school year,” Payne continued. “The program is also more sustainable because food is being utilized from the Foodbank, which comes at discounted rate than purchasing directly from a retailer. Further, our backpack food includes individualized as well as normal or family portions, helping to reduce the overall costs of the bags.”

Grants for food are uncommon and in great demand, so organizers rely on donations and specialty grants.

“Food is something most agencies don’t want to buy,” Butcher said. “It’s an on-going need.”

The program is funded entirely by donations, as are other programs in the school. In the lunch room, a basket has been set up for packaged items from the school lunch to be given away or taken as needed. Another basket is set outside the caseworkers’ office, where it is filled with donated perishable items that students or parents can come by to take what they need.

“If kids don’t want something on their tray, another kid could take that item with them,” Handa said. “We’re trying to reinforce the idea that the food is for anybody to take. You’re giving back when you can, no matter your circumstances.”

During the summer, hunger in Trimble becomes more of an issue. Students no longer are receiving free lunches outside of school. Handa has created a PB&J program for the summer, handing out jars every Thursday during the summer. Rural Action distributed apples to students, and the Southeast Ohio Foodbank comes to the school once a month for a couple hours and distributes boxes of food.

Payne said that anyone who wanted to could purchase backpacks of food to start their own free-food program.

“We offer similar packed KidsPacks, providing two breakfast, two lunches and two snacks, for $3,” Payne said. “These KidsPacks can be purchased by our members, food pantries, community groups, schools, etc., to implement their own backpack program at an affordable and more sustainable cost.”

Readers who wish to contribute to the Pride Pack program should send checks to The First United Methodist Church of Athens, located at 2 S. College St.

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