Getting kids FuelED means first breaking down the stigma of food insecurity in Loudoun.
The more contemporary name change and modern logo update for Loudoun Education Foundation’s (LEF) Backpack Coalition is designed to resonate with the status-conscious middle school and high school students it serves.
“Teenagers told us food insecurity shouldn't be a secret,” says Kirslyn Schell-Smith, the program coordinator for FuelED. “They said people need to talk about it, not just secretly hide it in someone’s locker or book bag. Teenagers are the ones who notoriously don't take the bags.”
FuelED provides food to more than 1,000 students in Loudoun County each week with the goal of aiding their family through the weekend when school lunches aren't available. Though the distribution days vary by school district, Kirslyn says the elementary school students are typically “super excited” to receive their bags; it's in middle school and high school where the organization starts to see the bag numbers go down. “But teenagers aren't getting less hungry,” Kirslyn says. “They're getting more hungry as they grow.”
Kirslyn explains that with so many different organizations using the word “backpack” in their name, people were getting confused about LEF’s food security mission. “We never distributed school supplies, and so a lot of people got that confused and thought we did school supplies,” Kirslyn says. The “ED” at the end of FuelED’s rebranding places the emphasis on education. Loudoun Education Foundation is an independent nonprofit that supports Loudoun County Public Schools. LEF also stocks food pantries in schools where they offer more culturally appropriate items, as well as hygiene supplies, household products, and snacks where families can choose the items they want. FuelED pantries are 90 percent supported by donations and the meal bags are 95 percent supported by “weight purchases” from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
FuelED’s product sourcing and swift response to critical needs also creates strong community connections. “We communicate directly with the family liaisons who are employed by the schools who help connect families to different resources and support systems,” Kirslyn says. If a school doesn't have a liaison, then it's usually a counselor or social worker that reaches out to the families and returns to FuelED with specific needs. FuelED then connects volunteers, local and national businesses, donors, and community partners and organizers to provide for students and families through meal bags and in-school pantries.
“It gives these families a chance to find and learn about resources,” Kirslyn says. “A lot of times, the liaison will learn, 'Oh hey they need rental assistance too; let me connect them to this person,' so it's more than just, 'here's some food,' they're actually making connections, which is especially hard with work schedules and school schedules and childcare and availability. Teachers are super busy, so it just gives them one more person to connect with.”
The weekly meal bags are put together by volunteers and distributed and delivered by Amazon Web Services, as well as a local logistics partner. Every Wednesday, those bags are given to the schools, the liaisons, or other designated school staff.
“Because of the volume of items that we distribute a week in our meal bags, that's the easiest, most efficient, most cost-effective way to do it, because we’re packing about 1,000 bags a week during the school year,” Kirslyn says. “Food insecurity is everywhere in Loudon,” Kirslyn says, “especially because there’s such a gap between those who qualify for any governmental assistance or SNAP benefits. A lot of people make too much money for that, but don't make enough to be able to be food secure. So, we're really focused on filling that gap.”
To learn more about FuelED, and how you can support the organization through volunteer pack nights, delivery dates, snack and hygiene drives, or generous donations, visit LoudounEducationFoundation.org/fueled.