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County school system partners with Food for Kids and Second Harvest

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County School System is partnering with Food For Kids and Second Harvest Food Bank to battle hunger in Unicoi County.

The Food For Kids Program, which began in 2003, will make food drops monthly at Unicoi County High School.

 “We piloted this program beginning in 2003 with one school system and added on schools and school systems as we were able until 2007 when it was offered to all of them,” said Children’s Program Coordinator Heidi Davis. 

“In the beginning we were only able to use donated food,” Davis said. “Now we serve over 4,000 kids a month and schools can get the traditional bags, food boxes, and/or do mobile food distributions once a month.”

The monthly drop-offs kicked off in September and have been going strong. 

“We started doing monthly distributions for families with children in the Unicoi County School System in the beginning of last school year to help with food insecurity during COVID for families that participated in the Food for Kids backpack program,” Davis said. 

She said that about 60 families pick up monthly but added that her organization has the capacity to serve more. 

The only requirement is that  each household picking up food must have a child currently enrolled in the Unicoi County School System. 

“We have similar programs in every school system in each county we serve,” she added.

Davis said that she saw a need in Unicoi County and was excited to bring this opportunity to the region. 

“We offered this program to every school system to help feed families during the pandemic,” Davis said. 

“Unicoi is unique because the county lacks enough local food pantries to meet the needs of food insecure residents,” David said. “The ones that are there are working really hard to serve as many people as they can. The school system got feedback that the families liked the mobile distributions and found them more helpful than getting bags of food to take home each month so we will continue them as long as we have the funding and capacity to make it happen.”

Participants can expect a multitude of offerings. 

“Items vary month to month, but we have funding from the United Way of Unicoi County, which is currently holding their Virtual Kickoff, that bought the Healthy Choice food boxes and we add fresh produce, meat, dairy products and other dry goods as our donations and other grants allow,” Davis said. 

She noted that child hunger can cause a variety of health issues. 

“If a child is hungry, they cannot think about anything else and they definitely cannot retain any learning during the school day,” Davis said. 

“Childhood hunger rates were 1 in 5 in 2019 and we saw that skyrocket to 1 in 3 in  November of 2020,” Davis said. 

Those rates came back down quickly, she said, because of federal programs like the Child Tax Credit, Expanded SNAP benefits,  temporarily universal school breakfast and school lunch, and Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer.

Davis said her fear is that  as things get back to normal, 18% of children will still be food insecure and some families will still struggle to have a enough food each month. 

“Many of the programs that have been a big help to families and cut child hunger down will go away, but the goal is for the food bank to be in a position to meet the needs of children when that happens,” she said.

“We are constantly learning and experimenting with new and better ways to provide services,” Davis added.

Unicoi Schools Health Coordinator Regina Harrell said she is proud to partner with Davis and company. 

“We are so thankful for the partnership we have with Second Harvest,” Harrell said. “Willard Malone has driven a truck for Second Harvest since I came to the District 8 years ago and I can say he consistently goes above and beyond to ensure our students and families have access to supplemental food,” Harrell said. “We are truly blessed to have individuals that are so caring and committed to serving others.”

The Food For Kids Program is always looking for help. 

“We may need volunteers in the future, but for now we have mobile distributions down to a science after last year,” Davis said. 

“We do need volunteers to help pack bags for other school systems,” she said. 

“If folks are vaccinated and have time, we’d love to have them at the food bank to help.” Davis said. “But the best way anyone can help is to donate money. It doesn’t have to be a lot. We make miracles happen every day with a dollar.”

Davis is appreciative of everyone who has made this program a success. 

“Our many thanks to Regina and her team for planning the monthly distributions and the Unicoi County United Way for supporting the Food for Kids program,” Davis said. “We literally could not make this happen in Unicoi without their support and hard work.”

The Food For Kids Program does not require participants to exit their vehicle. Food is distributed from the UCHS bus circle. The food distribution takes place the second Tuesday of every month that Unicoi County schools are in session. The food distribution is scheduled for 9 to 11 a.m. and the upcoming dates for pickups are Dec. 14, Jan. 11, Feb. 8, March 8 and April 12. 

For more information call (423) 743-7820 or email [email protected]