Because Julie Wharton knows 30 percent of the Wilson County School System's students are on free and reduced lunches, and school starts back in just a couple weeks, she's planned a pivotal day Saturday at Life Assembly Church in Mt. Juliet.
Julie is the wife of pastor Andrew Wharton and works full time at the church overseeing a variety of things, but her "pet projects" are the church's Whole Life Market food pantry and her annual Mobile Food Pantry Day. They are two separate outreaches, but each reach out to students to make sure they don't go hungry.
Mobile Food Pantry Day
"This is a huge day for local families with school-age children," Wharton said.
On Saturday at 9 a.m., the church at 555 Pleasant Grove Road will have a bonanza of activity centered around free grocery distribution, among a plethora of other vital information.
"We buy food from Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee and pack it up for local families in need with children in the school system," Julie explained.
This is open to anyone across the school system, and there is no request to provide some type of need.
"I believe anyone who will stand in line for free groceries has a good reason and a need," she said.
She said the families will go away with about two weeks worth of groceries which will satisfy the growling bellies of growing children ready to start the new school year with less stress and a clear mind.
This is the sixth year for Mobile Food Pantry Day, and it grows every year, Julie said. However, what's special about this year is an expansion of the day that includes the presence of dozens of local agencies specifically designed to help families that might need a hand up.
"So many who come are in need of other services, not just groceries," Julie said.
This day they can apply for food stamps, TennCare, get fingerprinted, learn about family resources and the parents can even learn about agencies which teach interview skills and provide business attire for a job opportunity.
"It's almost like a stop and shop for area families," Julie said. "Some people simply don't have the transportation to drive to dozens of agencies for help, or perhaps not a computer to research, or even a phone. Here we have 25-plus agencies in one location.
There will be three separate health care agencies to pass out information. Additionally, free school supplies (donated by church members and area businesses) until supplies last.
And there's nothing better than a fresh haircut the first day of school. Julie said several hairdressers will be on hand to give haircuts.
To encourage visitors to check out the agencies present. There will be a stamp-type incentive program, and those who visit 15 or more agency booths that day will be put into a drawing for a Walmart gift card.
However, to attend guests must register first, through Friday. Contact Julie at (615) 758-7779, Julie@lifeassembly.com or Melony Davis with the school system at (615) 444-8267.
Whole Life Market
Julie wanted to make it clear WLM is a separate outreach from the annual Mobile Food Pantry. WLM is year round and available only to families who are on the Backpack Program through the Wilson County School System. These families are recommended by school counselors.
WLM was started a year ago this month in a building on church grounds. It provides a place for families at risk of hunger to "shop" for no cost food for weekend meals.
Julie said some Wilson System schools have a significant number of students who are on the free and reduced lunch program, and WLM is set up to make sure no student goes hungry over the weekend.
She said Wilson County is a microcosm of the wider issue that one in four children in Tennessee are at risk of hunger. And while Wilson County is touted as one of the most affluent counties in Tennessee, according to Second Harvest Food Bank, it still has pockets of families that are below the poverty level and have a hard time affording groceries and providing children nutritious meals, if any.
"I was thinking about the wholeness of the situation," Julie said. "I guess it was a God-given dream of mine. Hunger in America is wrong. I knew there had to be a way to stop the cycle."
If children go without sufficient food over the weekend, there's no way they can be prepared and ready for the next week's classes, she added.
WLM provides not only non-perishables, but they also have a huge garden that produced for the first time this year with corn, beans, tomatoes and more for giving away. Meat is given away as well.
Eat Smart program
"What's really exciting is we just graduated our first class from the Eat Smart Program," Julie said.
Eight families took part in the innovative program offered at WLM. It's in conjunction with the UT Extension Office and offers a wide variety of informative classes and includes cooking lessons as well.
"We just want to make aware of hunger in our community," Julie said. "It doesn't matter where or what people may want to donate to this hunger cause. It doesn't have to be WLM or our church. It's not about what I'm doing here, it about what a community as a whole is doing to help fill the need for the gaps in services for people in need."
Another exciting addition to WLM just about ready to implement is the "aqua garden" where they will raise Tilapia in order to give their families fresh fish to cook.
Julie said we all know what it feels like to be hungry.
"Sometimes it's our choice if we are dieting to fit into a special dress, or need to lose a few pounds," she said. "But many people don't have a choice and are simply hungry. Being hungry affects more than just our tummies. It affects are emotions, stress levels and mental abilities."
WLM proves another resource in the community, according to Wharton. She said she believes if they invest in this outreach, the "returns will be far greater."
To learn more about WLM call (615) 758-7779.