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Go Ask Mom

From food shuttle volunteer to staffer, Raleigh mom finds career helping kids

Posted August 28

Courtesy: Inter-Faith Food Shuttle

In her former life, Julie Cox was a television news writer and producer, managing the news and public affairs unit at UNC-TV.

After her daughter was born 14 years ago, Cox left her full-time job and got busy, volunteering in her kids' schools. That volunteer work eventually landed her a new career. Cox is child hunger programs manager at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, which works to end hunger in seven counties in North Carolina with a variety of programs for kids and adults.

The food shuttle might be best known to local parents as the group behind BackPack Buddies, which provides food to needy school children on the weekends during the school year. Last year, the food shuttle delivered nearly 75,000 backpacks to more than 2,000 kids at 67 sites. The food shuttle also helps stock 13 school pantries with fresh and shelf-stable foods. And Cox will be helping to grow cooking classes for kids and families, which focus on encouraging healthy habits.

Cox lives in Raleigh with her husband, two kids (including one who just left for college) and dog. I checked in with Cox by email to learn more about what she does and how we can help.

Go Ask Mom: Through your work at Wiley Elementary School, Ligon Middle Schoole and Enloe High School, you worked with the food shuttle to help kids in need. What projects did you get involved in?

Julie Cox: I discovered Inter-Faith Food Shuttle while my children were at Wiley Elementary. Along with some other parents, I helped start The Cecilia Rawlins Fund, a foundation named after a former Wiley principal. We raised money to fund part of Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s BackPack Buddies program at Wiley (the rest of the bags are sponsored by St. Michael’s Episcopal Church). The CRF also helps pay for crisis needs of Wiley students and their families - glasses, shoes, one-time bill assistance. The CRF started with BackPacks for 11 students and, last year, provided weekend food for 26. At Wiley, I also volunteered in the classroom and served on several Support Circle groups to help families transitioning out of homelessness.

My son played football at Enloe High School and I helped raise money for the team - specifically for their pre-game meal program. Each player is supposed to pay a certain amount to help pay for their meals before games. The fact of the matter is a number of the players couldn’t afford to do that. So I reached out to the community and was able to raise additional funds that way. I also started getting connected with Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s School Pantry at Enloe High School. And, last school year, I helped bring the Food Shuttle’s BackPack Buddies to Ligon Middle School where the program was able to provide weekend food bags to 17 students who were homeless. This year, the PTA and other donors there have expanded the program to provide food for 25 students.

GAM: Anyone, like you, who has spent time in a local classroom has seen the kids in need. What are some of your experiences as you volunteered in your kids' classrooms?

JC: I really loved the time I spend in my kids classrooms. I enjoyed getting to know the students. I mostly helped with reading and that gives you some time to talk a little. It was fun and something I’d encourage others to do. You get to see first-hand how amazing teachers are!

To watch them engage children who are at so many different levels of learning is stunning. Teachers really get to know their students and their situations and who needs help. They use their own money to buy supplies, clothes, food for children they know who need some help. That’s one reason we started The Cecilia Rawlins Fund, not only to support students, but support teachers, too. There are plenty of families at some schools who can help out so teachers don’t have to spend their own money.

BackPack Buddies and other programs work hard to protect the dignity and privacy of the students and families they serve. While I didn’t know of children’s situations through helping with the programs, I’ve learned about some kids’ situations because they’re my children’s classmates and friends. I wish more people would try and understand that, generally, people are doing their best to take care of their families. But sometimes life throws some big curves at people - illness, job loss, abusive relationships - and everything becomes a struggle. A house burns down and a mother and her four sons live in a car until a very kind and capable school social worker learns of it and helps get them housing. Chronic illness leads to a job loss and then homelessness. But your school community comes together to form a Support Circle for you to be there until you can provide for yourself and your family on your own. Or, you're eating lunch at school with one of your children and one of their friends starts hiding food in their clothes. So you make sure someone at school knows the child is hungry and to check on the family.

GAM: And hunger doesn't just affect that single child, it can create issues for an entire classroom. How?

JC: Think about how you feel when you’re hungry. It’s can be hard to concentrate, remember anything or simply be nice. It’s hard for kids to learn if they’re hungry. If you haven’t eaten all weekend, it’s hard to behave in class. And even if my child has had plenty to eat, he’s in a class where someone else is having a hard time learning and behaving.  Food is essential to living and learning and access to nutritional food improves the school experience for everyone - students and teachers.

GAM: A lot of people are familiar with the food shuttle's BackPack Buddies program. Can you tell us more about that program, along with the food shuttle's other child hunger programs?

JC: Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s BackPack Buddies program provides enough food for six nutritious meals for weekends during the school year. It is truly a community effort. It costs $350 dollars to sponsor a school year’s worth of BackPack Buddies to a student. It takes donations and support from school organizations like PTAs and the Cecilia Rawlins Fund, as well as local businesses, community grants and individuals. While we raised a lot of money for Inter-Faith’s child hunger programs during the MIX 101.5/WRAL Mediathon this year, we have more to raise to fully fund BackPack Buddies, school pantries and our other efforts to end child hunger.

This school year, with generous funding from Wake County, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is adding five school pantries in Wake County high schools. They will be opening this fall at East Wake, Knightdale, Longview, Mary Phillips and Southeast to help fight hunger in those schools and the surrounding communities. We have 13 other school pantries, including 10 in Durham and one at West Johnston High School. Inter-Faith also has a food truck, the Mobile Tastiness Machine, which went out to low income communities this summer to serve hot dinners.

During the school year, the Mobile Tastiness Machine helps the Food Bank of Eastern North Carolina out with its Read and Feed program, which allows children to get hot meals and tutoring at the same location. The Food Shuttle also has an urban garden in Raleigh and one in Durham where children and their families can learn about growing their own food, and our child nutrition program has Cooking Matters classes that teach kids and families about cooking and shopping so they can prepare their own nutritious food on a budget. Inter-Faith’s motto is “We Feed, We Teach, We Grow” and it happens at our locations across seven counties every day.

GAM: How can people help?

JC: There are so many ways people can get involved with Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. We, of course welcome your monetary donations. Frankly, it takes a lot of money to do what we do. We simply couldn’t do what we do without the generous donation of people’s time whether it’s to pack bags, drive trucks to deliver or recover food, sort food or hold a food drive, work in one of our urban gardens or out on our farm. It all makes a difference. Our volunteer interest form is on our website.

Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.

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