Students in University of the Cumberlands’ Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) program are upgrading their approach to the local backpack program in order to greater impact local students.

The backpack program provides backpacks stuffed with kid-friendly foods to local children from low-income families to ensure those children have meals on weekends. In the past, PA students have raised funds and purchased food items at nearby grocery stores to fill backpacks, which they then delivered to Williamsburg Independent School District (WISD). Now, PA students have begun purchasing food from God’s Pantry Food Bank in Lexington through First Baptist Church (FBC) in Williamsburg, a longstanding partner with God’s Pantry.

Food items bought through God’s Pantry are often less expensive than their typical retail price. For example, a 2-pack of six applesauce cups costs $3.84 at the local grocery store (or $0.32 per cup), while a pack of 72 cups from God’s Pantry costs $14 ($0.19 per cup).

Norma Dunston, the office administrator at FBC, has led the church’s food pantry for years and now assists the PA students with ordering food.

“Those price differences really add up, and it’s nice to be able to include some healthier options in the backpacks,” said Dunston. “What is less expensive is also usually less healthy. We really shoot for sending home foods that are as healthy as possible with these children. For some of these kids, the weekend is a nutritional desert. This way, instead of putting some inexpensive chips in the bags, we can include some healthier foods.”

Sarah Banks, a PA student and the outreach chair for the PA program, said the PA students are all “very excited” about the new collaboration with FBC and God’s Pantry.

“We brought up the idea right after our contact from WISD came and spoke to us, and the vote was unanimous” said Banks. “The backpack program keeps us connected with the community. I think it’s important for us to be involved in something that helps the people around us.”

Banks routinely sits down with Dunston and scrolls through the food log on the God’s Pantry website to see which foods are available to purchase that would accommodate the food allergies WISD needs to work around. Once the food arrives, PA students stuff the backpacks and take them to WISD to be distributed to the children who need them that weekend.

With the money the PA program saves by purchasing food directly from God’s Pantry, Banks hopes to expand the backpack program offerings to include toiletries such as laundry detergent, tooth brushes and toothpaste, feminine products, soap, and so on.

Many local schools offer both breakfast and lunch to their children due to the high percentage of children enrolled whose families live at or below the poverty line; a few schools have a poverty figure is as high as 92 percent. Dunston emphasized the dire need these local children have for food when school is not in session.

“There are children who, if they don’t take these backpacks home, they won’t eat again until Monday at school,” she said. “It’s heart-wrenching that, not a mile or two from a dorm or a house, there are children who are going hungry. On the flip side of that, though, it is exciting to see that we can make a difference.”

Cumberlands’ PA program has been involved with the local backpack program for a few years now, and a number of Cumberlands students (and alumni) participate in Corbin’s backpack program as well.

The University is currently nearing the end of their annual food drive, which began on October 15. Cumberlands has met their campus donation goals each week of the campaign.  

The food drive is held October 15 – November 15 to help food banks stock their shelves before the holidays hit, as the extended holiday breaks often bring the highest need for food. All interested in helping local food banks may drop off food items in the Office of Student Services at Cumberlands, located on the top floor of the Boswell Campus Center.