Backpacks Unite 2018-04-03T15:56:44+00:00


What is Backpacks Unite?

Backpacks Unite fights for a healthier Southwest Virginia by providing nutritious weekend meals to at-risk students throughout the region – ensuring they come to school Monday ready to learn and ready to succeed.

Research and anecdotal evidence tells us that children who come to school hungry are unable to concentrate in the classroom, missing out on valuable learning opportunities and gradually falling behind their well-fed counterparts. Research also shows that students who participate in backpack programs can show marked improvement in school attendance, test scores, behavior, and health.

Backpacks Unite has expanded since its conception in 2009 as the needs of the region have continued to persist, and continues to be one of our organization’s largest volunteer outreach activities, with sponsors and volunteers providing hundreds of thousands of meals to students each year. The initiative works with more than 20 sponsors to serve over 1,000 students (in over 30 schools) across the region who are at risk of going hungry. The program is a collaborative effort among United Way of Southwest Virginia, community organizations, school personnel, and Food City.

How It Works


You invest in Backpacks Unite.


We purchase healthy foods through our partnership with Food City.


We partner with local organizations who sponsor schools in our region.


Food is packed and delivered to schools by volunteers.


Food is discretely placed in identified students’ backpacks to take home over the weekend.


Lasting change is created.

2017-2018 Schoools

Belfast Elementary School
Castlewood Elementary School
Cedar Bluff Elementary School
Clintwood Elementary School
Copper Creek Elementary School
Ervinton Elementary School
Fairview Elementary School
Glade Spring Middle School
Gladeville Elementary School
Greendale Elementary School
High Point Elementary School
Honaker Elementary School

John I Burton High School
Lebanon Elementary School
Lebanon Middle School
Lebanon Primary School
Meadowview Elementary School
North Tazewell Elementary School
Northwood Middle School
Oakland Elementary School
Raven Elementary School
Rhea Valley Elementary School
Richlands Elementary School
Richlands Middle School

Ridgeview Middle School
Riverview Elementary/Middle School
Saltville Elementary School
Sandlick Elementary School
St. Paul Elementary School
Swordscreek Elementary School
Tazewell Elementary School
Tazewell Middle School
Watauga Elementary School
Wise Primary School

Why Backpacks?


Hungry mothers don't get enough nutrients to support their own needs, much less an unborn child's.
low birthweight
infant deaths
birth defects
health, growth and development issues


Insecure families buy inexpensive food - usually high in sodium, sugar, and calories, but low in nutrients
28 times more likely to be overweight or obese at age 4.5
five times more likely to be overweight at age 12


Being a hungry child increases the likelihood of mental health issues later on in life.
4 times more likely to require mental health counseling
7 times more likely to get into frequent fights


Hunger limits cognitive and socio-emotional development which, makes schoolwork suffer.
13% lower on math and reading
Increased instances of hyperactivity, absenteeism, and poor behavior
Twice as likely to receive special education and repeat a grade


Those cheap, high-in-sugar foods also increase the chances of childhood tooth decay.
A single instance of bad tooth decay can cost up to $6,000 for families without insurance


Insecure families are already in poor finances, but the effects of hunger compound their expenses.
Medical costs
Special Education doubles the cost of school
Repeating a grade doubles it again

How You Can Help

Start a program and sponsor a school…’s how:

Here is a step three step process to get a Backpacks Unite Program started in your community.

  • Find a school you’re connected to. You can also choose from the three schools that have been identified in 2017: Marion Middle School, John I. Burton High School, and Northwood Middle School.
  • Start raising needed funds. Your school will need financial support to cover the cost of food. Every donation through Backpacks Unite school sponsorship goes back to your school…penny for penny.
  • Organize Your Team. Look for friends, businesses, community organizations, or even teachers and parents in your community. These groups not only help you pack the food but, they can also help get the word out.

Ready to go?  Let us know.

United Way of Southwest Virginia will work with you to help facilitate your program. Once we hear from you, we can then work to add your sponsorship of a school to the Backpacks Unite Program! Click here to email and let us know if you’d like to get involved!

Volunteer to Help

Volunteers are crucial for program success.  They help pack and distribute food to children in the Backpacks Unite Program.  To volunteer at your local Backpacks Unite packing sessions, please send an email to Please provide us with your name, address, telephone number, and your availability. We will contact your local school coordinator and pass your information along.


Donate to provide meals for 24 students
Donate to provide meals for one student

Are You an Existing Program?

Are you an existing backpack program and would like to learn more about Backpacks Unite? Please click here to email for more information!

<-  Back to United Way’s work in Health

About our work in Health

United Way of Southwest Virginia is fighting for the health of the region by promoting healthy eating and physical activity, expanding access to quality health care, lowering the cost of prescription medications, building a more resilient community, and integrating health into early childhood development.