Children who regularly go hungry are absent more from school, struggle to concentrate and run two times the risk of failing a grade.
That’s according to Second Harvest food bank, in reports about food insecurity among financially stretched families with limited or uncertain access to regular nutritional meals.
A three-year, grant-funded pilot project, which just wrapped up, dug a bit deeper. It explored: What’s the impact at three high-need Spokane elementary schools when Second Harvest brings regular, targeted outreach on-site to each school, from mobile food banks to nutritional programs? How does improved food security among low-income households impact student performance?
“School is one of the last places where just about everyone has a connection,” said Jason Clark, Second Harvest CEO, while adding that schools typically are trusted institutions in the community. Food also has a way of connecting people, he said.
In fall 2014, Umpqua Bank Charitable Foundation awarded a $300,000 impact grant to the food bank that launched Second Harvest at Spokane Schools. It sought to deliver more strategic nutritional services to families with children attending Lidgerwood, Bemiss and Trent elementary schools. All three sites have high subsidized meal rates.
“We recognize that lack of food can be a deterrent to that first-grader getting ahead in class, coming to school,” said Nicole Stein, an Umpqua Bank vice president. “What we’ve heard is multiple-year funding makes a difference.”
The outreach included Bite2Go kits given to students for weekend food, on-site mobile food banks twice a month, family activities and nutritional education, a fresh foods emphasis, use of a kitchen van to give out sample recipes, and information distributed about neighborhood food pantries.
In supporting the project, nearly 300 Umpqua Bank employees in Spokane have volunteered their time since 2014, from sorting at the food bank to helping distribute food at schools. Umpqua Bank gives workers up to 40 hours a year of paid time to volunteer in the community.
Clark said the Umpqua funding and the project itself allowed Second Harvest to focus on improving food delivery and operations. It led to community partnerships and understanding the importance of gaining more feedback from schools and families in assessing needs.
The Umpqua grant pressed Second Harvest to seek ways to sustain the developing school programs and led to partnerships with churches, businesses and professional groups. It helped fuel the widening of Bite2Go distributions from about 20 schools in 2014 to 68 schools now in Spokane County, as donors were found to pay for Bite2Go kits.
It costs $144 a year to feed one child thorugh Bite2Go, he said. At the end of the 2016-17 school year, 3,300 Spokane students were receiving Bite2Go food each week, up from 847 kids a week in 2013-14.
In the three-year pilot, some lessons were learned, Clark said.
“Our inclination is to feed as many people as we can,” he said. “The right answer is how do we go deep on this, what do we need to learn from our clients?”
“It’s exposure to need. It started because Second Harvest showed up at these schools and said, these kids don’t have enough to eat. This will impact how we deploy mobile services. We have a lot of anecdotal feedback about positive relationships built with families, that it’s helping these kids do better in school.”
The grant partners now are looking closer at surveys and impact numbers from the multiyear project, gathered by Spokane Regional Health District’s data center, a partnership that gives Second Harvest access to measurement abilities it didn’t have in-house.
Though survey results are mostly positive, including families reporting a rise in nutritional meals, Clark said one barrier included high transient rates in the student population among the three schools, many driven by a family’s need to find more affordable rent, he said.
Another lesson learned, he said, was that the schools each had different cultures and settings – such as neighborhood walkability – that affected food distribution and access.
Trent Elementary near busy Pines Road in Spokane Valley isn’t as walkable as other neighborhoods, posing a challenge for families to walk and visit a mobile food bank at the school, Clark said. Instead, the mobile unit sometimes set up across the street in a parking lot near multiple apartment complexes. That drew more families.
Other challenges were language barriers, timing of food distributions, parents’ lack of transportation or child care, lack of cooking supplies, and health issues. In the future, Second Harvest might consider work with a partner such as Washington State University Extension to help translate recipes, he said.
With the grant ending, the pilot’s three schools are likely to have fewer mobile food bank trips, Clark said. Spokane County schools typically get a mobile market visit three to four times a year. Lidgerwood, Bemiss and Trent school communities got used to twice-a-month visits.
“I honestly don’t know the answer to that yet, do we find more funding or do we pull back?” he said. “It’s going to be a little tougher because the schools looked forward to them. We also can’t scale up on all 68 schools.”
But Clark said he’s encouraged by the number of businesses and churches that have built support around the schools. Some stories he heard were humbling, he said, such as one about volunteers giving an 11-year-old child a peach to eat and learning it was the first fresh peach the student had ever eaten.
A report on the three-year program’s influences found these additional results:
About 80 percent of educators surveyed at the three school sites agreed students did better with their coursework than they would without the Second Harvest services.
About 74 percent of those educators agreed students’ attendance improved because of the services.
Among educators surveyed, 77 percent reported seeing better behavior among students than they would without the Second Harvest services.
Of school staff who said they knew which students received Second Harvest services, 87 percent agreed that offering the mobile food banks and Bite2Go kits improved student relationships with staff.
Among families who used the school-site mobile food banks, 75 percent of them reported that recipe cards provided were helpful for ideas on how to use different kinds of produce.
There was a 14 percent increase in the number of households that reported eating balanced meals among those who used both Bite2Go and the school mobile food banks.
Clark said the survey feedback showed how much food and related activities around recipes while families visited schools helped build trust, community ties and more nutritional meals in homes.
During the three years and across the three school sites, the pilot program attained other milestones: 153 school mobile food bank distributions, 1,549 volunteer hours, 251,267 pounds of food distributed, and 29,008 total Bite2Go kits distributed.