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For Hungry Kids, Backpacks Lighten Load


Students who are disruptive, can't concentrate, or lack motivation may not need a firm hand; they might need a helping hand! From Nebraska to Texas to New York, administrators have found that some of the kids in their care can't function well at school not because they don't want to learn but because they are hungry. With the help of communities, the simple remedy is a backpack -- a school standby -- that is filled with food supplies to help kids get the fuel they need to flourish. Included: A snapshot of hungry kids in one state and advice from successful backpack programs.

"Federal law says no child will be left behind, but we are doing just that by not confronting the issue of children coming to school on Monday morning not hungry for learning but just plain hungry," says Jim Thompson.

As principal of Wolcott Street School in LeRoy, New York, Thompson has tackled student hunger head-on. At home during the summer of 2006, he read a Wall Street Journal article by Roger Thurow that described a program in Tyler, Texas, in which hungry students received food in backpacks at school and carried the supplies home to their families.

See this article by Roger Thurow: Hunger Has Defied Solutions, But School 'Backpack Clubs' Try to Help.

"Reading that article was a moment of serendipity," Thompson recalled. "With 35 years in education, and 20 of them as principal, I always knew there were hungry kids here and there, but for some reason I hadn't done anything in an intentional or focused way to help those kids. Here was an authentic success story of folks working together to feed hungry kids. After reading the article, I said to myself, 'We can do that here in LeRoy!'"

Thompson launched an effort that brought together the churches of LeRoy and senior citizen groups along with the elementary counselor, assistant principal, and the district courier. That diverse group shared a moral imperative -- to feed hungry youngsters.

"Senior citizens were literally 'chomping at the bit' to sign up to pack the backpacks each week," Thompson shared. "The desire to contribute to the community was all of the motivation they needed. We planned an orientation for volunteers prior to the start of the program and hoped that at least 20 folks might show up. More than 40 people attended our meeting, and by the end of it the entire year had been scheduled with volunteers!"

On Wednesdays during the school year, the district courier takes empty backpacks from the elementary guidance office and brings them to a Baptist church that is across the street. Senior citizens pack the backpacks with food on Thursday morning, and the courier delivers them back to the guidance office. Students pick up their filled backpacks on Friday afternoon and return them empty on Monday. Food that is needed for future months is requested at local churches, and the items -- including, occasionally, personal-care items like toothbrushes -- are brought to the Baptist church each week.

Local organizations have made significant donations to the program, and the LeRoy Christian Community Project (LCCP) does financial recordkeeping and assists with obtaining grants. The program has already grown from feeding 9 families to 15, and expansion is a continuing focus.


Food For Kids:
At a Glance

Laura Rhea of the Arkansas Rice Depot reports the following data from the thousands of children who took part in its backpack program during the 2005-2006 school year. About 200 participants lived in homes with no utilities, some lived in hotels, and other kids lived with elderly relatives, parents who were disabled, or parents who had serious illnesses.

Students were placed on Food For Kids because they
--- complained to school personnel of hunger or lack of food at home.
--- showed physical problems (underweight, headaches, stomach aches, frequent illnesses).
--- exhibited educational problems (not paying attention in class, sleeping in class, grades falling, or failing grades).
--- displayed emotional problems (behavior problems, disruptive in class, emotionally needy, or apathetic).

Often the children were going hungry because they had parents who seemed to have drug or alcohol addictions, some had parents who had mental or emotional problems, and others had parents too disabled or ill to cook.

Among the measurable changes shown by children who received help from Food For Kids were
--- improved attendance;
--- improved grades;
--- improved health (fewer medical complaints or illness);
--- improved conduct (less detention, fewer behavior problems, and more interest in school);
--- improved self-esteem or greater feelings of security;
--- improved trust, which resulted in better relationships with school personnel;
--- less stress and worry; and
--- better relationships with other students.

"We received guidance from the director of food service regarding foods that are easy to prepare and nutritious, especially those that can be heated up in the microwave," Thompson explained. "Our offerings include granola bars, fruit, yogurt snacks, and even some candy bars now and then."

Food allergies are a special concern, so backpacks given to students who have allergies are marked and monitored carefully. The school counselor handles communication with participating students and their families and maintains total confidentiality.

"Weekly, we hear heartfelt comments like, 'Thank you so much for this!' and 'God bless you folks!' and 'You don't know what a difference this has made!'" added Thompson. "But equally moving are the folks who come into my office and leave a check for the program. One anonymous donor requested that I meet with him at the major grocery store in town just before Thanksgiving. He wanted to purchase $50 gift certificates for each family in the program. He wanted the families to have 'a real Thanksgiving.'"


"We received a call from a school nurse who knew that we provided food to church food pantries and wanted to know if we could help some of the students in her school," recalls Laura Rhea, president and CEO of the Arkansas Food Bank. "She said students were coming to her with headaches and tummy aches and complaining of being dizzy. When she talked to them, she discovered that they weren't sick, they just hadn't eaten since school lunch the day before."

A school counselor confirmed that she too was seeing students who weren't staying on task and were disruptive because hunger was impeding their ability to concentrate. From the initial request of this school, an original program called "Food For Kids" was born. Viewed as the first of the "backpack programs" to combat hunger in the U.S., it has been replicated in 110 cities in 39 states.

Like many states, Arkansas faces a difficult fight against hunger. The Food Research and Action Center reports that more than half of children in Arkansas who take part in school lunch programs receive free or reduced rates, and poverty in the state exceeds the national average. During the 2005-2006 school year, the Arkansas Rice Depot gave food to more than 16,000 students in 410 schools. By May 2007, the number of participating schools had grown to 508.

"We send the new backpacks and whole cases of food to the schools, and they fill the backpacks according to how many children are in the family and how much food the student needs," explained Rhea. "Food is sent home for the student and any siblings in the household. Normally, the food is not sent for adults, except in rare cases such as a mom who is critically ill or a grandmother or great grandmother who is too elderly or frail to go to a food pantry."

Schools have a great deal of flexibility in administering the Food For Kids program. Food is available for students who miss school breakfast, need food to take with medication, or for other reasons. Backpacks can be sent home daily or on Friday for the weekend. The backpacks, which are similar to those carried by other kids, protect the students from being teased for bringing food home.


Tips for
Backpack Programs

Bess Scott believes that the key to a successful backpack program is partnering with many organizations that share the mission to eliminate hunger among children. Scott advises:

Focus your recruitment efforts through the filter that hungry children can't learn.

Have one entity coordinating all of the partners.

Try to model good nutrition with the items placed in the backpack.

Start small and grow.

"This is a program that will bring out the best of everyone involved," added Armstrong.

A daily backpack includes a main course, a snack, and juice or shelf-stable milk. Main courses feature entres such as beanie-weenies, beefaroni, a tuna lunch kit, soup, chili, or similar offerings. Snacks are treats like a fruit cup, a pudding cup, a granola bar, nuts, or peanut butter and crackers. Backpacks for a weekend contain food for three dinners, two breakfasts, two lunches, and two snacks. The organization is currently reassessing the kinds of food purchased for the program in an effort to find the most nutritious, simple, shelf-stable foods and the proper serving sizes and food combinations to make nutritious and balanced meals.

"In the beginning, we were just trying to fill empty stomachs and ease the pain of hunger," Rhea observed. "Now we are trying to be very careful to give students the proper foods for optimal nutrition. We still might give students an occasional snack cake or bag of chips, but our goal is to give them balanced meals and not contribute to obesity."

Food For Kids seeks to provide nutritional support for children without turning them into "breadwinners." It is designed for children whose parents won't or can't access traditional food relief programs. In many cases, schools let parents know that food is being sent home so that children can concentrate better on homework and school work, but in others, the parents are not notified. Sadly, some parents will withhold food as a form of punishment or eat the food so children still go hungry, and some will even sell the food for drink or drugs. In the worst cases, students are fed at school at the end of the day because it isn't safe to send food home with them.

"We do not recommend sending notices home to all parents regarding the availability of the Food For Kids program because too many parents will sign up for any free program," reported Rhea. "We prefer that all teachers, counselors, school nurses, and office personnel be informed about the program and asked to refer students to the school coordinator if they suspect there is a lack of food at home. The coordinator will then talk to the student and determine if there is a need."

To meet the criteria for this backpack program, a student must have physical, educational, or emotional problems in school due to hunger at home. The physical signs students often exhibit are headaches, dizziness, stomach aches, weight loss, or low weight. Educational problems may include poor grades or falling grades, lack of concentration in class, and falling asleep in class. Typical emotional problems include being disruptive in class, low self-esteem, fighting, and stealing food.


Principal Bess Scott has seen the effect of hunger firsthand in the countenance of a beautiful, vibrant kindergartner who became quiet and sullen, and sometimes withdrawn, in the afternoon. "Even her face looked different," Scott observed. "Her teacher finally diagnosed the problem. She was storing chewed food in her cheeks to take home at night."


Backpacks Pack
Fringe Benefits

Nearly all of the professional educators in partner schools report a wide variety of other benefits that have been realized through involvement in the Food Bank of Lincoln's backpack program.

"One principal is thrilled to have a group of bankers in her school -- in their suits and professional wear -- handing out backpacks and expressing concern for the kids and their families," shared Scott Young. "Other principals have talked about the increased connection the schools are building with the backpack kids and their families."

Churches credit the backpack program with inspiring growth in their outreach programs, and corporations have seen a new caring spirit among their employees who are engaged in volunteer service with the program.

Scott adds, "The backpack program and our partners have awakened the community to the problems of childhood poverty and hunger."

As her teacher developed a relationship with the child and her family, she learned that until the age of five the child had been homeless and had at times lived in a car. This child truly feared that there might not be food at home. Scott and her staff at McPhee Elementary often found food in the girl's locker that had been partially eaten or salvaged from another student or the trash. While they finally convinced her that food would be available to her at home, she reverted to that behavior when she was under stress.

Issues related to hunger are not unique at Scott's school. Because 85 percent of its students receive free and reduced lunches, it was invited to join in a backpack program sponsored by the Food Bank of Lincoln (Nebraska). McPhee is a Community Learning Center school with a very strong partnership with First Presbyterian Church, which supports the program with both labor and money. The food bank, the Lincoln Public Schools, and many partners supply the food. In the last school year, the food bank's backpack program came to the aid of more than 500 students in various local schools.

"Hunger is a significant issue in our relatively affluent community," explains Scott Young of the Food Bank of Lincoln. "During the 2006-2007 school year, 4,551 children, or 30.7 percent of our community's elementary-age children, participated in the free lunch program. Many of those children and their families are in need of food support."

During each week of school, high school students pack the food into family sacks at the food bank and deliver them to the schools. At McPhee, First Presbyterian volunteers come each Friday afternoon and place the individual sacks into backpacks. They then bring backpacks to the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten rooms, and students from grades 1-5 pick up their backpacks right before dismissal. On Monday, students bring back the empty backpacks and the cycle begins anew.

"Our food bank has a fresh fruit component too," added Young. "The Community Health Endowment pays for two pieces of fresh fruit each week for every child in the program and provides a monthly voucher for a gallon of milk. Once a month, the food bank also provides a voucher for a dozen eggs."

"The challenge of hunger is an everyday thing," added Scott. "Most of our students eat both breakfast and lunch at school each day. The children eat all of the food on their trays. They do not waste food. Sometimes they will sneak a carton of milk or another item of food into their lockers to take home at the end of the day."

The McPhee backpack program provides a "bridge of nutrition" from Friday to Monday. It ensures that children do not have to worry about having food on the weekend, and it offers the kind of food that they can manage by themselves.

"I think that how the children treat the backpacks tells us how important they are," Scott shared. "Children do not vandalize or litter the contents of the backpacks. The students are not embarrassed to carry them. In fact, often a family or child will quietly come to me and say, 'I think this family needs this backpack more than we do.'"


Nutrition Assistance Programs
Read about programs designed to increase awareness about hunger and food security issues and how to address them.

Center on Hunger and Poverty
Find current national facts and figures about poverty, hunger, and food insecurity.

Beyond "Backpacks"

The Arkansas Rice Depot and its president Laura Rhea realize that a family that can't afford food probably also can't afford personal grooming items. So, in addition to backpacks full of food, the organization provides "health kits" which include toothpaste, a toothbrush, soap, a comb, and often deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, fingernail clippers, and band-aids. The kits sometimes also contain a washcloth and towel or hand towel. These items are sealed in plastic bags and can easily be added to backpacks as needed.

"We have a children's disaster kit that includes a small stuffed animal, a coloring book and crayons or colored pencils, and a toy police car, ambulance, or fire truck all in a zip-lock bag," says Rhea. "These kits are given to children when a parent goes to jail, their house burns, or a parent goes to the hospital, or if a child and parent have to leave home quickly due to abuse."

There are kits with basic school supplies, and the organization gives out new blankets in the winter. Coordinators get to know students and usually discover when the gas is turned off and there is no heat or when a family is temporarily living in a tent, a car, or has only a space heater at home. Rhea remarks that students who can't sleep due to cold are as ill-prepared to reach their full potential in class as those who are hungry.

"When we discovered that more than 500 students in our Food For Kids schools were either pregnant or teen moms, we decided they needed special attention too," Rhea added. "We heard of students not eating properly during pregnancy and students dropping out of school because they couldn't handle school, a job, and a baby."

The Arkansas Rice Depot had its local Cooperative Extension Service develop a brochure that provides teens with guidelines for eating during pregnancy that are based on the types of food offered in the backpacks. Rhea urges school coordinators to make sure that pregnant teens receive plenty of food in their packs.

"When a student has a child and returns to school, she is given a layette kit that includes four receiving blankets, four gowns, two one-piece outfits, a sweater, and a cap," said Rhea. "Sometimes the school coordinator takes this gift to the student in the hospital, and often the gift contains the only new items the baby receives. When the student returns to school, she is given disposable diapers and wipes for as long as she stays in school. These items are expensive, and it really makes a difference when teen moms don't have to worry about them."