It’s the Wednesday before the long Thanksgiving weekend and most of the students at Hillyard’s Shaw Middle School are looking forward to a few days off with family and a couple of great meals. Others know that they will be hungry long before they can return for free breakfast on Monday morning.
Study after study shows that hungry children have a hard time focusing on school work. Schools have free breakfast and lunch programs to make up for some of the hunger issues – for some kids, school has become the only place they can count on a meal. Once they get home, they are on their own.
It’s to help these most vulnerable students that Communities in Schools of Spokane County is handing out backpacks with food meant to tide the students over until Monday.
Every other Wednesday, volunteers meet at Second Harvest Food Bank to put the food bags together and deliver them to Shaw – or one of the other schools served by CIS. All together, 160 students at four schools receive a bag full of food every Friday afternoon.
“The bags fit into an ordinary school backpack so no one needs to know that you went and got some food,” said Sherry Barrett, program director with CIS.
Inside the food bag students will find nonperishable items such as canned fruit and pasta, juice, cereal and crackers. Everything in the bag can be eaten as it is and it comes in packaging that’s simple for students to open.
There are 510 students at Shaw and about 85 percent of them are eligible for free or reduced-price meals because they live in poverty.
Rebecca Moore is the site coordinator at Shaw and she begins the year by developing a list of students who may need a little extra help to avoid hunger.
“Generally, we know something about the family,” said Moore. “We get to know the kids and we find out who’s struggling.”
Sometimes children tell Moore that the power or water at their house has been turned off. Sometimes she hears of children who are couch surfing, sleeping at different homes every night, never knowing exactly where they’ll end up. Parents lose jobs. Health problems knock the bottom out of a family’s budget – there are endless reasons why a family runs out of food.
“Once we approach them, most of the kids say yes to get a backpack,” said Moore. “I could easily give out more than I do now.”
Once a month Second Harvest’s mobile food bank hits Shaw with take-home boxes of food, aimed for the student’s entire family. As many as 200 students take a box of food home with them.
“The box food program is open to any student,” said Moore. “We keep track of who gets a box, but we make sure the whole school knows they are available.” The food box often contains bread and peanut butter, big cans of vegetables and bags of potatoes and onions. Special arrangements were made with school buses so the kids can bring the box on the bus if that’s the way they get home.
Is there a stigma connected to getting food help at school?
“There really isn’t,” said Moore, “because everyone here is in the same boat.”