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Fighting food insecurity from the schools
Area school embracing BackPack programs
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“You can pass all kinds of judgments on the families, but the bottom line is that this is about kids that are going hungry,” said Deb Benish, the Seneca kindergarten teacher behind the “Food Packs for Kids” program the school is implementing to help make sure students have enough food on the weekends.

Benish is seeking donations from the community that will then be used to make weekly purchases of foods to be bagged up and sent home with qualifying elementary students to help ensure they do not return on Mondays hungry.

“We can make an order each week with Johnson’s One Stop so that we can get what we need and not have to store food in the school,” Benish said. “We are focusing on the elementary first, sending home forms with all the students that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts.”

For Seneca’s elementary school that is over 60-percent of the enrolled students. Because this is a program fully supported within the community through local donations, it will have to be first come – first serve. The help will go exactly as far as the donations that come in.

Kay Teague, the Food Service Director at North Crawford Schools, is hoping to start a similar program for her students, but is hoping to find support from an established program such as Second Harvest. Just under 60-percent of North Crawford Elementary School students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

Both women report seeing children who come into school on Monday morning, eating as much as they can, apparently famished. And with science behind them showing the importance of nutrition in childhood – those who are malnourished are more likely to suffer from poor social, mental and physical development – they are working to do something about student hunger.

The first BackPack program was begun in 1994 when a school nurse in Little Rock, Ark. approached her local food bank, the Arkansas Rice Depot. Seeing a large number of children complaining of headaches, tummy aches and other health problems related to hunger and food scarcity in their homes, she approached the food bank asking for help. Together, they launched the Food for Kids program, which provided food for kids discretely in bags or backpacks to take home during the weekends when school meals were unavailable.

Backpack food programs generally provide a bag of nonperishable food that children can take home and eat when school meal programs are unavailable. These bags are distributed at school to participating children as they leave Friday or before a long break. Commonly run by volunteers and sustained by donations of community members and private foundations, federal reimbursement is not available for the food provided by backpack food programs.

Second Harvest, which runs a mobile food pantry that visits Gays Mills once per month, is involved with three BackPack programs already. However, they are in no hurry to start another.

“We haven’t expanded because, though it helps children, it puts the responsibility on the child,” Gina Wilson, the Director of Agency Services and Programs at Second Harvest, explained.

“We could provide more through the mobile pantry,” Wilson said. “These children have siblings, parents, and often other family members who also need food.”

The concern is that the backpack of food designed to feed one child is likely feeding several household members. Second Harvest is reevaluating their programs and putting greater emphasis on both their mobile food pantry and the creation of school food pantries that the families can visit.

Benish has considered the possibility of a school pantry given Seneca’s lack of a community pantry.

“The problem with a school pantry right now is having access that the parents would be comfortable with,” Benish said. The details of how to make a school pantry work are something she’s not ready to tackle yet.

Community commitment is the key to making these programs work, according to Wilson.

“Families are so stretched, they look for help wherever they can get it,” Wilson commented. “With everyone scrambling, parents are turning to schools. The schools know that nutrition is a critical component to the success of their students.

“And when a community gets behind something like this, it’s like a little miracle happens – where there was no space, there suddenly is because everyone is committed to making it work,” Wilson said.

With fifty-seven percent of students in Crawford County qualifying for free and reduced meals through the schools, food insecurity outside of school is a very real and present issue.

The World Bank funded several economic studies of the impact of childhood malnutrition. The report, “Calculating the Cost of a Poor Start to Life” authored by Harold Alderman, determined that the impact of adequate childhood nutrition was intergenerational. Not only did it affect the child’s future by reducing illness, risks of obesity and chronic disease, and increasing productivity as an adult, the benefits played out into the following generation as well.

“Often, it is possible to view the economic returns to investments in health in terms of saved resources for health care and productivity gains only,” Alderman said. “These results are unambiguously an underestimation. The true economic returns will be larger than those reported.”

Extensive evidence exists linking nutrition to cognitive capacity of children. Cognitive capacity has a direct correlation on school performance. And school performance has a direct bearing on earning capacity as an adult.

 The World Bank report identified adequate childhood nutrition as the most profitable global investment program.

Deb Benish and Kay Teague have identified tackling childhood hunger in their schools as their most profitable investment as well. Now, they have to form the programs to suit their needs.

If their programs follow the lead of other existing programs, they may run much as the BackPack Program at Unity School District in Balsman Lake and Milltown.

“Eligible families sign up through the school,” said Elizabeth Jorgenson, Middle School Principle at Unity. “We distribute discreetly, handout the backpacks in the students lockers on Friday. On Monday they return them to the office.”

In Unity’s case, the local Salvation Army and Lions Club run the program for the school and handle all collection, preparation and distribution efforts.

“We haven’t tracked academic changes in the students,” Jorgenson said. “But in terms of the students coming to school more content and ready to learn, we have had ample evidence.”