Schools fight back against hunger - one backpack at a timeIssues of poverty, homelessness and dysfunctional families leave children without adequate food to get through the week.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
A fourth-grade teacher at one of the local elementary schools once had a boy in her class who had a particularly difficult life at home. He wore rubber boots to school because he didn’t have anything else to wear. On the last day before Christmas break, the class had a party and everyone was excited because they were going home for Christmas. The boy shared with the teacher that he wasn’t looking forward to going home for Christmas, though. When she asked, “Why?” he replied, “Because I won’t have hot lunch.” And when she asked him what he was going to eat over the vacation, he said, “Whatever we trap….”
That’s the reality of hunger in a small rural community. Issues of poverty, homelessness and dysfunctional families leave children without adequate food to get through the week. Thanks to the Free and Reduced Lunch program, many of those children get a hot lunch — and often breakfast as well — while they’re at school. But it’s tough when they board the bus on Friday afternoon, because many will spend the weekend with very little food to go around.
A new program set to pioneer this fall in Cloquet’s elementary schools is hoping to change all that. A collaborative effort among United Way of Carlton County, the Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank and the Cloquet School District aims at raising enough seed money to begin a program that will fill each targeted student’s backpack with enough food to carry him or her through the weekend. For those students with the direst need, that could mean all the difference.
“As we get into the school year, we often see patterns starting to form in certain students,” said Churchill Elementary special education teacher Deb Roach. “It’s not all that uncommon to see some kids taking things out of the garbage cans.
“When you see certain behaviors such as this in kids,” said Roach, “you can often tell what’s behind it — when they’re lethargic and tired in the mornings and have a hard time getting going. Inevitably, if we can get them fed and make them better learners, it can change their lives.”
She said though it may not be apparent to most people, hunger is a very real and present issue in some students’ lives, some of it stemming from homelessness.
“We know it’s out there,” she said. “We’ve known it for a long time, but it’s a question of how to get the food to them.”
“Many of the homeless are moving into the area and living with extended family, or they’re ‘couch surfing,’” explained Roach. “Many people just don’t see it because it’s not as obvious as you might think. Some students are in families that are unstable, where the parents might be alcoholics or drug addicts or have made poor decisions along the way, and the kids are caught in the fallout. It’s pretty tough. If someone is not intervening in that, it can become an untenable situation.”
Last year, Roach became involved in helping to get a special Backpack Program off the ground in Duluth to honor the memory of family friend Patrick Plys. Plys was a member of the Second Harvest board and a community-service activist who died of a brain tumor. His widow wanted to do something significant in his honor and zeroed in on a national initiative under the umbrella of the Feeding America program that provides backpacks filled with food to school children who don’t have enough to eat on weekends. Hence, the “Project Joy” Backpack Program was formed in Duluth. Project Joy was so successful, it was able to continue feeding kids throughout both the school year and the summer.
“We expect the Duluth program to nearly double during the 2013-2014 school year,” said Amy Kinney, public relations and marketing director for Second Harvest. “Along with the Cloquet Schools program, pilot programs in Hermantown and Two Harbors are also in the works.
“This program has been a great addition to our food bank and we hear incredible testimonials from the schools,” she continued. “For example: a school nurse at one of the schools was going through the items in a child’s backpack and explained ‘You may not like all of the food, but at least try everything.’ The little boy responded, ‘Food I don’t like is better than no food at all.’”
Through Roach and others, folks from Cloquet Schools heard about the program, including Washington kindergarten teacher Mary Bakken.
“I went to a fundraiser at a church on the Range, and the speaker talked about the Backpack Program,” related Bakken. “It moved me to tears, knowing there are kids who go home to no food in the cupboard or refrigerator. The rest of us try to decide what to eat, but they have nothing at all.”
Bakken has had first-hand experience with kids facing this type of hunger in her own classes.
“I hand out a scoop of cereal to my kindergarten children each day as a snack,” she related. “One day I noticed one little boy wasn’t eating his, and when I asked him why he told me he took it home so he and his brother could have supper that night.”
Bakken said after learning of the Backpack Program, she talked with the school board, social workers and members of the City Council to see if something could be done to get the program started in Cloquet. She also consulted with Roach because of her experience with the program in Duluth. They met with Kris Horman of Second Harvest Food Bank and the county/school liaisons and conducted a small needs assessment survey with the teachers in the elementary schools to determine the extent of the need for weekend meals.
Since the Second Harvest Backpack Program model is based on the national program, there had already been a set of indicators developed to help identify which students are likely to be without access to adequate food at home. Using those indicators along with the survey, the local group came up with a rough idea of how many kids they would try to reach at the beginning.
They also looked at fundraising mechanisms and were fortunate to receive $2,000 from Frandsen Bank of Cloquet, as well as a commitment from the United Way of Carlton County to donate the proceeds from the United Way’s upcoming Taste Fest event, which Executive Director Dorine Houck said normally nets around $3,500 each year. The group felt that would be enough seed money to get the local program off the ground beginning Oct. 1.
Second Harvest already has the volunteers and the food access available to get the ball rolling by coordinating and packaging the food, and the organization also offered to serve as fiscal agent for the Cloquet program as well.
Basically, this is how it works. The Backpack Program provides enough shelf-safe food to feed a child for a weekend, including such things as cereal, canned milk, lunch-type foods, and occasionally fresh produce.
It’s distributed confidentially in backpacks every Friday afternoon before the children go home for the weekend.
“You have to be very careful in how you go about it, putting the food in the kids’ own backpacks,” said Roach, “so the other kids can’t tell who they are.”
Parents will be given forms to fill out, allowing their child to participate, though Roach stressed this program is limited to certain students.
“This isn’t for whoever wants it,” she said. “This is for targeted kids.”
Houck said the number of children targeted for the startup of the program has been set at approximately 50, though she added that the hope is to add more kids after the first of next year.
The cost per meal to provide the food for the students is anticipated to be approximately $3.46.
“It varies depending on the time of the year, what Second Harvest can get and when they can get it,” explained Roach.
The program will initially serve both Churchill and Washington elementary schools, with the hope it can eventually expand to the middle and high school, since it’s likely that many of the students have older brothers and sisters.
“Our goal is to go county-wide, because we know there’s a need,” said Roach.
County/school liaison Laura Sieben is currently working on writing grants in support of the program, though Roach said there may well be a need for some type of ongoing fundraising effort to keep it going. She said it’s definitely worth the effort.
“If you can get a good school experience for those kids and they can say, ‘I was hungry and they fed me,’ that will only add to their success,” she said. “You aren’t going to save them all, but you can save some of them.”
Roach and her colleagues remain optimistic that the new backpack program will be the type of kicking-off point that can result in real and significant change in children’s lives.
“It’s a shot at getting food to kids who need it,” she said. “Regardless of what decisions parents make, kids shouldn’t have to pay for those decisions.”
“We can’t just sit back, knowing these kids are hungry.”