Two Mt. Juliet schools will soon have a local outreach help make sure some of their students won't feel hunger pains over the weekend.
Just like the other schools in Wilson County, Stoner Creek Elementary and Wilson Central High School have a significant amount of students who are on the free and reduced lunch program. This program's set up to make sure no student can't afford lunch.
Julie Wharton, who is the wife of Life Assembly pastor Andrew Wharton, said Wilson County is a microcosm of the wider issue that one in four children in Tennessee are at risk of hunger. While Wilson County is 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 nutritious meals, if any.
"From what I'm told, 30 percent of the Wilson County School System's students are on free and reduced lunches," said Wharton.
She noted with pride Wilson County is the only school system in Tennessee that has every school covered by the "Backpack Program." Volunteers at each school work with Second Harvest Food Bank and several local churches to provide a backpack full of food and toiletries to targeted at-risk students.
Life Assembly, under Wharton and other volunteers' guidance, works with Wilson Central and Stoner Creek to supply backpacks to about 100 students every Friday during the school year. The packs are filled with food to help get the students through the weekend with breakfast and lunch items and some toiletries.
"We have a mobile kitchen to fill in the gap over the summer," said Wharton. However, about two years ago Wharton started "stressing" about these students' entire family.
"I was thinking about the wholeness of the situation," said Wharton. "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."
Wharton said she believes children should focus on classwork and what to play on the playground, not where they will get their next meal. If they go without sufficient food over the weekend, there's "no way they can be prepared and ready" for the next week's classes.
"They shouldn't have to worry if they will have anything to eat tonight," said Wharton.
She and others at the church noted it's a proven fact a child with proper nutrition scores better on tests and can focus better on a daily basis. Because they knew the free and reduced lunch program ensured students were fed in the day, and the backpack program provides at least some food over the weekend, Wharton decided to conceive "Whole Life Market."
Nutritious food a focus of concept
Whole Life Market is a program that will begin in January at Life Assembly and will augment the backpack program with fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and even counseling on nutrition. The idea is tocreate a non-fee market with fresh produce and perishables for families so "there won't be so many empty calories" consumed.
"We even plan to give cooking lessons to families and provide recipes so they can learn the best way to feed their children and themselves," said Wharton.
However, the first step toward fruition of this service was to find a place to store the food and set up a "market" from which to run the program. Through what Wharton described as a series of "small miracles," she pinpointed a deserted cabin in her neighbor's yard that would be ideal to move to the church for the marketplace. However, the church didn't have enough money in their budget to purchase it.
"And then the owner, Glenda Foster, generously donated the building to us," said Wharton. "It was unbelievable. The church set up offerings and came up with the cost to move it from Hunting Hills Drive to Life Assembly."
The cabin is already in place and they were able to dig out a full basement, doubling the building's 900-square-feet. Wharton's son is going to put in a large garden so they can grow vegetables to give to the families, and Wharton will use Second Harvest Food bank and other donations to provide a full meal, complete with recipes and instructions to about 100 families already on the "Backpack Program." Wharton plans to raise chickens so she can supply fresh eggs as well.
"We hope to expand it to even more people in need," said Wharton. "I'm just so excited to help the whole family."
Mind, body and soul nourished
She said she named her new program "Whole Life Market" because she believes if the body is fed, the mind and soul will be nourished as well.
"The purpose is to let these children's families know there is a better way to eat," said Wharton.
"We could have prepackaged boxes of food, but these families know what their children can and will eat.
This way they will have a choice. I want them to feel like they are shopping at a grocery store, picking things they want off the shelves."
She said some nutritionists have told her they will volunteer their time to teach parents, and even the children, about proper nutrition.
The counselors at Wilson Central and Stoner Creek are very supportive of Life Assembly's further outreach. Meghan Giesler is Stoner Creek's counselor. She works directly with the students on the school's at risk list.
"Students at Stoner Creek are so appreciative of the services provided by Life Assembly," she said.
Giesler said the students are already looking forward to the various weekend supplies and recently received a donation of knitted hats for the winter. She said the students are seen wearing their hats with pride.
"As a school, we are looking forward to the opening of the Whole Life Market and being able to provide our parents with another resource in the community," Giesler said. "Our partnership allows the community and school to provide for the needs of our students."
Wharton said she simply believes if they invest in this outreach, the "returns will be for the greater."
For those who wish to know more about the new program, or donate, please contact Julie Wharton at 585-9100.
Writer Laurie Everett may be contacted at email@example.com.