POVERTY IN BRADLEY COUNTY
• Bradley County population: 100,055.
• Below national poverty line: 16 percent
• City of Cleveland population: 41,723.
• Below national poverty line: 21 percent
Source: U.S. Census, 2011 update.
BY THE NUMBERS
Children on free- and reduced-price meals program*
• Taylor Elementary -- 75.97 percent
• Black Fox Elementary -- 64.89 percent
• Waterville Elementary -- 70.41 percent
• Valley View Elementary -- 63.08 percent
• County schools average. 52.54 percent
• As of Oct. 1.
Source: Bradley County Schools
Hamilton County Schools*
• 56.4 percent of kids eat free- or reduced-price lunches
• 50.8 percent of those lunches are free
• 5.6 percent of those lunches are reduced
• As of Oct. 1
Source: Hamilton County Schools
CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Some hungry kids are easy to spot, especially on Mondays.
After a weekend at home, where food may be scarce, some students in the Bradley County school system can't even make it back to the table before they dig in.
"Our cafeteria manager notices such things," Black Fox Elementary School Principal Kim Fisher said. "She sees them eating in the cafeteria line on Mondays because they are so hungry."
Those are the kids The Caring Place tries to reach with its Sack Packs -- two kid-friendly meals, easy to prepare, nutritious, that children will gladly eat. The bags are distributed discreetly to 200 kids at three elementary schools, including Waterville and Valley View, on Fridays, giving them something to eat over the weekend.
"Just think about that. We have hungry kids, right here," Ron Waugh said Tuesday as he and wife Fran helped sack and box the Sack Packs for next weekend. And because next week is fall break for Bradley County schools, the Waughs and volunteer Elaine Samples and Sack Pack Coordinator Gwen Evans were filling two bags for each child.
Some hungry kids are not so easy to spot, but Fisher knows they're out there.
"In January, when Sack Packs started, a little first-grade girl came up to me. She rarely talked to me. She did not look like a child in need," the principal said. "But she said 'Thank you for the food. It really helps.' So, as usually happens, I'm sold based on the words of a child."
Some children getting the food packages are on the free- and reduced-price lunch programs in the school system. But some are not.
"Many of our economically disadvantaged children leave school to go to homes with little or no food," said Bradley Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel.
To begin Sack Packs, Caring Place Director Reba Terry got a United Way of Bradley County grant. The money comes from a special fund set up for community health, wellness and quality of life programs and is paid for with proceeds from the 2005 sale of the county hospital.
The Caring Place, based on Wildwood Avenue in Cleveland, is a mix of churches from more than a dozen denominations, plus individual volunteers, that distribute clothing, at very low prices, and food to some of Cleveland's poorest families and singles.
Food or money may be donated just for the Sack Pack program, which is based on a similar program provided by the Chattanooga Food Bank. The Caring Place gets some of its food, including for Sack Packs, from the Chattanooga Food Bank, too.
"We want nutritious, shelf-stable food," explained Evans as the packing began Tuesday. "A lot of these kids will be the only one at home so poptop cans or microwave-able things are best."
Into the Sack Packs go microwave macaroni and cheese, small cans of chili or beanie weenies, granola bars, fruit cups and fruit juices and milk products that don't need refrigeration.
"It's the best job I ever had," said retiree and volunteer Samples. "It doesn't pay anything. But it's the best job I ever had."
"Absolutely nothing tugs at your heart like a hungry child," Evans said.
Carolyn Childs, school nutrition director for Hamilton County Schools, said she believes there are programs similar to the Sack Pack program in Hamilton, but they typically are operated by churches, community organizations, private citizens, food banks and similar groups. The school system doesn't run them, she said.
But as head of nutrition for the school system, she knows how critical a good meal is to students.
"It has been shown that kids get sleepy, their attention spans drop and their energy flags when they don't get the right nutrition," she said. "They can have discipline problems, they lose their power of concentration."
Nutrition is critical for adults, too, she said, but it's even more important for kids.
"First, their bodies are still growing, and second, they're in study mode. You want their brains to function at the highest level possible so they can be more successful in that endeavor."
"Research is clear; children perform better and achieve more if they are not hungry," he said.
Having seen the response to Sack Pack over the past 10 months, the organizers want to expand the program to more schools.
"We know the need is there," Evans said.
For $20, she said, a donor can provide food for one child for four weekends.
After hearing about the program, at least one donor decided to go beyond that.
As the school year began in September, Fisher was called to her office to meet a visitor. Turns out, it was somebody she knew already. That person, asking to be anonymous, gave her an envelope with $10,000 inside for Sack Packs.
"I was a nervous wreck until I got the money to The Caring Place," Fisher recalled.
Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...