CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Sponsors of the Caring Place's Sac Pac program - which provides kid-friendly, nutritious meals for 263 Bradley County students over the weekends during the school year - want to feed more children.
"We are currently reviewing the possibility of expanding the program again later this year," said Chelsea Long, resource developer for The Caring Place, an ecumenical Christian nonprofit organization.
The program launched in January 2012, serving 200 students from Black Fox, Waterville and Park View elementary schools. A year later, Charleston Elementary and 63 more students joined.
Teacher feedback has been very positive, said Long, with many citing improved health and test scores of children who take home 12 to 15 ready-to-prepare foods each Friday. The statement "Because Jesus loves you!" adorns each food-filled white sack.
"The Sac Pac program has proved to be a successful resource for my students who participate in it," said a teacher in a recent survey. "I feel that receiving a Sac Pac provides a sense of hope for my students."
The initiative was created as a way to combat hunger among the 26.4 percent of children living in poverty in the county, said officials with The Caring Place.
The hardest-hit children live in "food deserts" in southeastern Bradley County, where access to nutritious food is challenged by lack of money, transportation and few nearby grocery stores, Long said.
"We've seen children hoarding food from the cafeteria and from snacks provided," said another teacher in the Sac Pac survey. "We can only assume that it is being hoarded for a time at home when they may not have food available."
Although the schools provide the Sac Pacs with discretion, many students openly celebrate receiving the food gifts, according to teacher feedback.
The program was made possible through a five-year Pioneer Grant received from the United Way of Bradley County's Bradley Memorial Health Endowment Fund. While the Sac Pacs have received strong support from the community, Caring Place officials said they still seek to increase sponsorships.
"We know these food gifts go directly to help the children of Cleveland and Bradley County," said the Rev. Dr. Joel Huffstetler, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, one of the program's organizational supporters. "The Caring Place is a wonderful steward of any contributions they receive."
The Caring Place also is trying to find a solution for hungry children during the summer, Long said. When school is out, that means an end to reduced-cost or free meals at school, as well as the Sac Pac program.
"When you're a child, you're dependent on the adults in your life to make sure you have food," Long said. "That kind of uncertainty can be a source of fear and become very difficult to deal with."
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at email@example.com.