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Not Running On Empty: Backpacks Provide For Hungry Students

CUMBERLAND — Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to focus on anything when you’re hungry? For some students, leaving school on Friday means no access to a meal again until their return to school on Monday morning. This is the reality for a growing number of children in the area, and a local organization is fighting back.

The mission of Backpacks of Love (BPOL) is to reduce hunger in school-age boys and girls in Powhatan and Cumberland counties. The program, founded in 2011, provides backpacks filled with donated, ready-to-eat food items for students. Backpacks are filled and prepared by volunteers at the charity’s headquarters in Powhatan and are then transported to schools. On Thursday evenings, teachers and guidance counselors discreetly place the bags in students’ lockers to go home with them on Friday.

Bobby Fulcher, who founded Backpacks of Love with his wife, Brenda, echoes the sentiment in the quotation from author Alexandra Elle: “I am thankful for my struggle, for without it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.” As a child, Fulcher experienced the struggle of not having ample food to eat and it has become his passion to feed hungry children. A local church informed Fulcher that there was a great need in Cumberland’s schools, so the program’s involvement in the county began.

Each backpack contains 13 to 15 items; usually included are four proteins, two drinks, three snacks, two fruits and two breakfast items. Over long breaks, during the spring and winter months, supplemental proteins like jars of peanut butter are included in backpacks to provide students with a more lasting food source. The program holds frequent peanut butter drives with the goal of collecting 400 jars per academic break.

“There is a great need for access to healthy food in our area,” said Cumberland County School Superintendent Dr. Amy Griffin. “Students must have healthy minds and bodies to be successful in school. We appreciate those who serve and donate to this wonderful program that is committed to reducing hunger in school-age boys and girls.”

This academic year, the first year Cumberland County has been included in the program, BPOL has provided, on a weekly basis, weekend meals for 90 Cumberland students and 180 Powhatan students. School administration and faculty identifies the children in need and communicates to BPOL how many packs are needed at the beginning of the school year and throughout the year.

According to BPOL Managing Director Gloria Couch, “In many cases, this would be the only food [students] would eat for the entire weekend, often providing food for both themselves and their siblings. It is fuel for the student’s ability and readiness to learn on Monday mornings.”

On May 28, Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe paid a visit to the BPOL organization’s building. The purpose of McAuliffe’s visit was to learn more about the growing program and, in her words, “to raise the awareness of how real, and unfortunately how big, of a problem hunger is in the commonwealth.”

McAuliffe applauded the charity’s work and the impact fighting hunger can have in better educating students. The BPOL team has worked fervently to provide, cumulatively, more than 19,000 backpacks and 115,000 meals since its founding in 2011.

BPOL is planning an expansion to Amelia and Buckingham counties by the upcoming school year, with the hopes of eventually covering up to 24 school divisions.

To learn more about the program, how and what to donate, and how the community can get involved, visit BPOL’s website at backpacks-of-love.org or give them a call at 804-598-2723.