Feeding the Need in Oxford-Lafayette County Schools
Story by Tonya L. Thompson
Young student in the Oxford School District in Mississippi was asked by his teacher why he had milk dripping from his backpack as he walked down the hall. After further inspection of his backpack and a shy response from the student, his teacher discovered the answer: he had been gathering unfinished cartons of milk from the cafeteria trash cans to take home to his younger siblings, because they were not old enough to come to school and get milk.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Mississippi and Arkansas have the highest food insecurity rates in the nation, with both states topping the chart at 19.2% of the population being food insecure. The USDA defines ‘food insecurity’ as “a condition that results from insufficient household resources.” In today’s climate of heightened awareness of social programs, one might ask how this is possible, given the vast amount of state and federal resources that go toward helping families who are living below the poverty level. However, according to the USDA, “many factors that might affect a household’s food security (such as job loss, divorce or high expenses) are not captured by an annual income measure. Some households experienced episodes of food insecurity, or even very low food security, even though their annual incomes were well above the poverty line” (source: Statistical Supplement to Household Food Security in the United States in 2011, AP-058. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, September 2012).
This young man’s story, along with the surprising statistics coming out of the USDA’s report, was validation enough for Mary Leary and Helen Phillips to start Lovepacks, a nonprofit organization that now serves all schools within the Oxford-Layfayette County School District. Later assisted by Alyce Krouse and Camille Bianco, the four Oxford women formed a Board and solidified their mission. “The idea of Lovepacks is to help our local children who do not have enough food at home for the weekends and school holidays,” says Camille. “Students are identified by the school counselor, and a number is given to school contact volunteer. Those Lovepacks are packed every Tuesday at our ‘pantry’ and delivered to the school counselor. The counselor will distribute the packs to students on each Friday. The hope is that the pack will feed the student over the weekend or holiday. The week or weeks before a school holiday, more than one pack will go home with the student.”
In its beginnings in the spring semester of 2010, the newly-formed Lovepacks Board was given the names of approximately 12 students, who Oxford-area school counselors identified as being in particular need for the service. With the help of friends, the women stocked the packs once a week from their own grocery supplies, with each pack including ravioli, soup, pasta, fruit or vegetables, pudding, peanut butter or cheese crackers, granola or breakfast bars, cereal and Pop-Tarts.
That summer, Lovepacks grew into a significant project that would help as many students as possible. “From those 12 packs, Lovepacks has grown,” says Camille. “We now pack and distribute around 130 packs a week. All of our helpers are volunteers, and our space is donated. To date, 100 percent of our donations have gone to buying food.”
The volunteers and donations have come from various sources in the Oxford and Lafayette County area, including local churches, the local hospital, local grocery stores, the PTAs and PTOs of the school districts, and individuals from the campus of the University of Mississippi. However, none of these sources are guaranteed from week to week, so the Lovepacks Board relies on continued donations and volunteers to keep the organization going.
After recently receiving their 501c3 status as a charitable organization, the Camille and the other Lovepacks Board members are now discussing ways to serve the area’s children in need during summer vacation. Their hope is that with an increased number of volunteers and donations, this goal can be achieved. “Anyone who wants to help or donate can do so by contacting us through Volunteeroxford.org, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook,” says Camille. “We accept donations of food and money, and we welcome groups that would like to sponsor.