Backpack Coalition Reimagines Its Weekend Meal Program
By Danielle Nadler
In the past nine months, the Loudoun Education Foundation has undergone some pretty significant changes. It was almost a year ago that Dawn Meyer, then LEF’s Executive Director, came to me, then the Director of Communications, and said that it was time to build the team back up after a couple of slim years amid the pandemic.
She had already shared with me months earlier that she planned to retire in the summer of 2021 and would tap me in to lead the organization (pending Board of Trustees’ approval). But — and I’ll forever be grateful for this — she offered to use the three-month window before she left to help me build an excellent team.
So we got to work, sending job posts to family, friends, and friends of friends, conducting interviews, and adjusting our vision for the two open positions as the top candidates came to light. And within the first few minutes of interviewing the two women we ultimately hired, LEF’s true potential, for empowering and equipping students and educators to succeed in the classroom and beyond, came into view.
In July, one month after I officially started as Executive Director, we hired Kari Murphy as our Director of Development and Julie Sproul as our Program Coordinator, overseeing several in-house programs including Backpack Coalition, teacher scholarships, and grants.
I want to point you to this Loudoun Now article that offers just a snapshot of what makes Kari a huge win for any nonprofit team. (More on that in a future blog post.) And I’ll share here how Julie filled a need LEF didn’t even know we had.
Julie came to LEF with eight years of teaching special education in Charlotte, NC. Many of her students, who were also her neighbors, faced significant socioeconomic challenges and she spent much of her time on and off the clock supporting them.
So when she started with LEF, it should have come as no surprise that the first thing she asked was, “how is the Backpack Coalition program going and how could it be improved?” She asked these two questions to community partners, such as Loudoun Hunger Relief and Backpack Buddies Foundation of Loudoun. She asked the same two questions in a survey to the principals and parent liaisons at the schools the program serves.
What she learned was that Backpack Coalition had a history to be proud of, providing meals for hundreds of food-insecure students and their families to ensure they didn’t go hungry over the weekend. But she also learned that there was an opportunity to build on that work.
In response to the feedback, Julie led the effort to launch in-school pantries at 6 Loudoun County public schools. She and her Program Assistant, Kirslyn Schell-Smith (another incredible hire), stock the pantries with non-perishable food, household necessities, and hygiene products. The pantry model is designed to provide families with more dignity because parents are invited to choose their food, rather than provided meals that are prepacked and placed in their child’s backpack. For that reason, the pantry model also cuts down on wasted food. Parent liaisons connect with the families in need at each school and invite them to “shop” at the pantry weekly.
Frecia Torres, parent liaison at Sterling Middle School, points out that nearly 80 percent of her school’s students qualify for the federal free and reduced meals program. “The Sterling Middle School food pantry is something that is life changing in many ways for these families,” she said. “Our pantries help fill gaps in our community so that nobody goes hungry.”
Fueled by this vision for just what’s possible with a school meal program, Julie and Kari have worked together to form new partnerships to support the work. The pantries—which will soon be offered at more schools—are funded by a generous donation of $30,000 from Amazon Web Services (AWS). LEF is also partnering with Amazon Logistics’ Sterling Delivery Station and Metropolitan Logistics, who volunteers each week to transport more than 1,000 meal bags from a warehouse in Leesburg to 25 schools, from as far east as Sully Elementary to as far west as Blue Ridge Middle School.
Julie has also adjusted what food Backpack Coalition offers, simply by asking parent liaisons what food their school community prefers. It’s another chance to reduce food waste and improve how we serve Loudoun families.
“For me, understanding that food security is a social determinant of health and wellness for any child, I think it’s important to do what we can to meet that need,” Julie said, when I asked her why she put such incredible effort into this program. “It’s powerful to come together as a community and support our neighbors by working to end food insecurity for families so that students can focus on their education.”
Interested in partnering with our Backpack Coalition program? Reach out to, none other than, Julie Sproul.