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Backpack Initiative

LEWISTON-WOODVILLE – The Franklin P. and Arthur W. Perdue Foundation, the charitable giving arm of Perdue Farms, on Thursday presented a donation of a $7,500 grant to the Youth Bertie, Inc. Back Pack Initiative aimed at combating after-school hunger in Bertie County.

The local chicken processing unit contributed more than money: at the check presentation, several Perdue workers – from corporate to the assembly line – pitched in and loaded backpacks to be distributed in the coming weekends.

“Perdue’s been a great partner with us in this, and this just shows that this is a community-supported effort,” said Ronald “Ron” Wesson, retired businessman, Bertie County Commissioner and founder of the nearly two-year-old Initiative. “155 kids are going to benefit from this every single weekend throughout the school year.  We couldn’t do it without sponsors like this because it’s a grassroots effort: kids helping kids and volunteers stepping in; so it’s going to make a difference for us.”

RIGHT: Back Pack Initiative founder Ronald “Ron” Wesson shows the nutritious foods contained in each back pack.  The packs are designed to fight hunger among students when they’re away from school on weekends.

RIGHT: Back Pack Initiative founder Ronald “Ron” Wesson shows the nutritious foods contained in each back pack. The packs are designed to fight hunger among students when they’re away from school on weekends.

Wesson said the grant is the largest the Initiative has received since its inception.

“We do feel like we’re very involved in our communities by donating to various organizations, and this is just another great one that the Perdue Foundation was able to donate to, so we’re extremely happy,” said Jeff Stalls, Director of Operations at the Lewiston plant. “We feel like as long as we continue to give back to the community, the community will continue to give back to us – so it’s a two-way street.”

In addition to the presence of several Initiative Board members, including co-founder and retired college professor, Dr. Karen Ray, members of the Bertie High School 4-H club, sponsored by the county’s Cooperative Extension Service; Community Service kids; Youth Bertie, Inc.; the county’s Recreation Department; and volunteers all came to the plant to lend their support.

“This makes it a pretty strong combination,” Wesson mused.

A nationally replicated initiative providing nourishing food to children at high risk for hunger, the Back Pack program picks up where school meal programs leave off. Each distribution provides a child with five nutritious weekend/holiday meals, including main course items, fruit and vegetables, and healthy snacks.

“Our partner, Food Lion, sells us the fruit at half-price, so that makes a big difference for us,” Wesson said.

A typical food bag contains fresh fruit – usually oranges and bananas – non-perishable milk, juice, “heat and serve”, or microwaveable cans of stew and pasta, along with small packs of apple sauce; good for two lunches and two dinners.

“Our goal was to feed about 155 of the neediest kids,” Wesson said. “We don’t pick them; they’re picked by the school’s counselors and Social Services. Just before the kids leave school every Friday teachers place the food bags in their school back-packs – thus the name: the Back Pack Initiative.”

The cost, Wesson says, is about $180 per student for the entire school year. While some food and nutrition outlets allow discounts, the group purchases all the food from their gathered donations; volunteers then pack the meals in plastic bags where the bags are boxed and delivered to the schools for distribution.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that school-age children many times go without a nutritious meal when school is not in session,” Wesson said. “While that’s basically during the summer months, it also includes weekends when school is in session.

“Sadly, for a lot of kids from low income households, the meals they eat at school are the only nutrition they receive, and that only comes when school is in session. Our program fills the gap during weekends,” he noted.

For the Lewiston plant, it’s just one more example of their work with Elizabeth City-based Food Bank of the Albemarle.

“For the last several years we’ve been a part of Feeding America,” continued Stalls. “We’ve been involved with that for a while and this is just another chance to extend that, and extend it locally.”

“We don’t identify the kids,” Wesson acknowledges. “These go to the most-needy kids at all four of the county’s elementary schools and the charter school (Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy).

“There is 38 percent food insecurity in Bertie County. That’s the highest in the region. It’s efforts like this that go a long way to making sure the most vulnerable get what they need, so we’re proud of that,” he said.

Stalls said what the kids learn here is invaluable in teaching not only charitable work, but also that volunteerism is giving back, no matter how insignificant it may seem to be.

“It is nice to see youth involved,” Stalls observed. “I would hope they would see, as they grow older, they can make a contribution of time or making some monetary donation. Hopefully, whatever communities they end up in, they want to give back at some other time, so it’s great that they’re doing this.”

Following the check presentation, Perdue workers lined up with the other volunteers, on two long tables, and the food bags were packed in what Wesson said was record-time (about ten minutes).

“Our associates and management just filled in anywhere and participated in two rotations,” Stalls mused, “and they did excellent.”

When asked if their efficiency was due to their experience on the chicken line, Stalls didn’t hesitate to complement his crew of associates.

“They’re probably a little bit quicker with that because they’ve been doing it a little bit longer,” he joked, “but this is outstanding.”