Special to Iredell Free News

FOODiversity, a Mooresville-based nonprofit, is on a mission to reduce the burden faced by families who are struggling to afford nutritious foods with the added challenge of food allergies, celiac disease, or other food intolerances.

By raising awareness, providing educational and financial support, and increasing access, FOODiversity aims to help these families manage weekend nutrition needs.

Many students who are provided breakfasts and lunches at school during the week are without food on the weekends. From Friday afternoons until Monday mornings, these students struggle to find nutrition.

When elementary students’ performances are compared in terms of childhood hunger, the research confirms that hungry students underperform.

The impact of free breakfast on test scores has been widely studied. Research also confirms a positive connection between nutrition and performance for students enrolled in weekend “backpack programs,” where nonprofit organizations and schools fill backpacks with meals and snacks to carry kids through the weekend.

While these existing programs address the needs of many students, the specific requirements of children with food intolerances often go unmet. And more seriously, the food packed into the weekend backpacks may unintentionally cause these students sickness, intestinal damage, hospitalization, or even death.

FOODiversity recognized this opportunity to step in and help backpack organizations as they accommodate children with food allergies, celiac disease, and other food intolerances.

Based on a year of research, and meetings with backpack organizations, Wendy Gordon Pake, founder and volunteer executive director of FOODiversity, developed two prototype solutions: one for multi-school backpack organizations; and a second for schools who are served by smaller community partners such as a volunteer group from a religious organization. Both prototypes used third-party food providers, known for their allergy-friendly focus, to package the foods, customized and labeled, separately for each student. Evaluation tools were employed to ensure the most effective model development.

In February 2021, Pake funded a single-delivery for a small backpack organization serving multiple schools. After noting the potential benefits, she was enthusiastic about moving to a larger student base.

Pake and Heather Chait of Parents of Allergic Kids (PAK), met with Bags of Hope, an area backpack organization. Bags of Hope’s Executive Director Ashley Nydish noted the added expense when a student has food allergies.

FOODiversity and PAK shared their vision with Bags of Hope. Through a Community Outreach grant provided to PAK by Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), Bags of Hope received a six-weekend supply of allergy-friendly weekend meals for its 30 students with food allergies (representing 13 different schools).

After the first four weekend deliveries, Nydish noted the greater ease in accommodating students with special diets. She added that the grant assistance also made additional funds available; she was able to serve more students.

In the second FOODiversity prototype, all students attend the same school. FARE also provided the funding for this project, through a Title 1 school grant. For four weeks, FOODiversity worked with the school nurse to coordinate delivery of allergy-friendly meals.

A key FOODiversity strategy is educating both organizations and families and encouraging students’ ownership in safely navigating their journeys. In addition to weekend meals, students received a flier about reading ingredients labels to ensure safety. While underscoring the many benefits of backpack programs, a review of the projects indicated even more positive results when families were able to take ownership in the process and select their own products.

To that end, FOODiversity encouraged the school nurse to refer families to the national nonprofit, Food Equality Initiative (FEI). FOODiversity is providing funding, in the form of a monthly credit at the online Free From Market, for those families who become FEI clients. Dignity is inherent in the ability to choose from a wide variety of products, and Free From Market also incorporates education, nutrition tips, recipe ideas and helpful successful client profiles.

FOODiversity, committed to continuing to aid students and families who need weekend nutrition that meets their medically necessary food requirements, is reaching out and welcomes financial assistance to meet its goals. Sponsorships and donation opportunities are available for both corporations and individuals.

One corporate sponsor, L. Gordon Iron and Metal Co. of Statesville, has already funded Free From Market access for some families. Donations may be placed online at bit.ly/GiveSafeFOOD or by emailing Wendy Gordon Pake at wpake@CarolinaFOODiversity.org for additional giving options.

About FOODiversity

Founded in 2020, FOODiversity is headquartered in Mooresville and serves clients across the country. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit also collaborates with dedicated partners to serve populations worldwide.  The FOODiversity mission is to prevent hunger, medical emergencies, and hospitalizations by raising awareness, providing educational and financial support, and increasing access.

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