Secret Meals provide food for school children in need

The West Alabama Food Bank, in partnership with Alabama Credit Union and other donors, works with elementary and middle schools in counties across West Alabama to provide food over the weekends for the children who need it most.

By Tanner Ary
News Reporter

One in six children may not know exactly where they will get their next meal, according to the non-profit Feeding America.

This means that getting the nutrients they need to grow and develop is a daily struggle that they must face.

Because of this statistic, groups around the United States are working to make sure that all children have the food they need every day. One of these groups is Tuscaloosa’s West Alabama Food Bank. Funded by Alabama Credit Union, local businesses or grants, the food bank packs and distributes food packs known as “secret meals” or “backpack meals” to schools in counties across West Alabama, including Tuscaloosa, Greene, Hale, Bibb, Fayette, Lamar and Marion.

The food bank distributes meals every Friday to elementary and middle school students who otherwise would not have a reliable source of food over the weekend when they are not receiving meals from the school.

“An average week would usually require anywhere from 20 to 50 volunteers helping to pack 1,650 to 1,700 food packs to be distributed,” said Courtney Charland, development and volunteer coordinator with the West Alabama Food Bank. “This past week we delivered 1,667 food packs to schools across seven counties.”

A typical food pack that is delivered to students.

The food packs are strategically packed to give the students who receive them the most nutritious and child-friendly meals possible that can fit into a school backpack for easy transportation home from the school.

“Each bag usually includes two milks, two proteins, two cereals and two fruits,” Charland said. “They are as kid-friendly as possible. Instead of just throwing them together, we try to choose foods that the kids enjoy eating, while also ensuring they get the nutrients they need to get by.”

Child friendly foods that are usually packed each week.

According to Feeding America, kids who are hungry face higher risks of health conditions in their development. Also from Feeding America, these kids are more likely to repeat grades in elementary school, experience developmental impairments and have more social and behavioral problems.

“Without food, these children’s minds and bodies do not develop like they are supposed to,” Charland said. “Our mission is to make sure that these kids have the same chance to develop and be as successful in life as all of their other classmates.”

The food bank relies on school counselors and teachers to act as the middlemen in the operation. They work to observe and figure out what children are struggling due to a lack of nutrition so that their needs can be met by this program.

“We get to know the kids over the first month of the school year,” said Suzanne Wheat, School Counselor at University Place Elementary School. “We take the time to look and see who is eating all of their food at lunch and asking for seconds, then we narrow it down to who actually needs the meals from there.”

Over time the meal packs become something that the kids start to look forward to as the school week draws to a close every Friday.

“These children expect these meals over the weekend and they are always so excited to see us when they are delivered,” Wheat said. “I know I better get them their meals as soon as possible because if I don’t I will have a line of kids at my door wondering where the food is.”

Although the goal of the meal program is to impact the student’s life by providing them with a secure source of food when they otherwise would not have it, the program also creates a lasting impact on the people that work to provide them and deliver them every week.

“When a child comes into my office simply to thank me for the food or calls me the food lady when they see me in the hall, it gives me chills,” Wheat said. “Just those small moments make all the work worth it for me.”

This emotion is shared by other counselors who are active in the process of food distribution at other schools as well.

“These meals let these kids know that they will make it through the weekend with full stomachs,” said Dawne Gibson, School Counselor at Englewood Elementary School. “They give you hugs when you hand them their meals and it really melts your heart to see how appreciative these children are for just a small bag of food.”

Each food pack costs around $4 to put together. To feed a single child for a full school year, it costs $140.

“For people who donate, we like to think you are paying a $140 to not only give a child a full stomach, but to give them hope in their future as well,” Charland said.

To volunteer or donate to the West Alabama Food Bank, contact (205) 333-5353. 

“We are always so happy to receive help or donations,” Charland said. “We are always working to feed those who are hungry and we need all the help we can get in achieving this mission.”