Fighting Hunger in Schools, One Backpack at a Time

Programs that assist food-insecure students and their families are in desparate need themselves.

In 40 U.S. states and Mexico, schools are sending food-insecure children home with backpacks full of food to eat at home. (Photo by: Tanya Little/Getty Images)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

While much attention has been paid to the kinds of meals U.S. children eat during school, it’s easy to forget that for more than 10 million kids, food at home can be scarce. In a growing number of schools, those food-insecure students are being sent home with backpacks full of groceries for their families.

But widespread food and funding shortages at food pantries, which supply many backpack food programs, put schools’ ability to serve their most vulnerable students at risk. Sherrie Grove, coordinator at the Office of Coordinated School Health in Dickson, Tennessee, told The Dickson Herald that while enrollment in the district’s “Food for Kids Back Pack Program” is at an all-time high, she came back from the holiday break to “almost empty shelves.”

A record-setting drought, lingering economic woes, and struggling food pantries threaten to dampen an idea that began in 1994 with an attentive school counselor in Little Rock, Arkansas.

She’d begun to notice more kids coming to her with headaches, stomach aches and dizziness. Many of these kids had trouble paying attention in class, created disruptions, or lacked overall motivation. These issues, she discovered, had a common source: hunger. She called the Arkansas Rice Depot, a hunger-relief organization, to report what she was seeing. Before long, a solution was developed: Provide students with food to take home.

Today, the Arkansas Rice Depot’s Food for Kids BackPack Program serves more than 35,000 Arkansas children and has been replicated nationally through Feeding America: Some 230,000 children in 40 states and Mexico receive food in their backpacks.

The first program in Little Rock simply sent kids home with bags of groceries. But when officials began to hear that students—many of whom didn’t own backpacks—were being teased for carrying armfuls of groceries home, the idea to provide bookbags was born. Today, children drop their backpacks off with a volunteer Food for Kids coordinator at the beginning of the school day and pick them up, full of groceries, before heading home.

For many children, that backpack serves as a life-changer—if not a lifesaver. Take, for example, a story Brandi Johnston, the Development Coordinator at Arkansas Rice Depot, heard of an eight-year-old Arkansas boy who arrived at his new school with a warning letter: “This child has anger and behavioral issues. He will cause trouble at your school.”

But administrators at the new school weren’t buying it. They believed the boy’s problem was hunger, not behavior, so they began to send him home with a backpack of food. Additionally, the Food for Kids coordinator in the school appointed the boy her “little helper,” inviting him to lend a hand in filling backpacks with groceries for other students. With a full stomach and a caring adult looking out for him, the boy made a dramatic turnaround, going so far as to volunteer to take food out of his own bag when there was a shortage.

“Where was this angry little boy?” Johnston ponders. “And now he’s loving, thinking of others when someone took the time to care for him and give him food when he was hungry.”

While Arkansas holds the dubious distinction of having, along with Mississippi, the nation’s highest hunger rate, 19.2 percent, Johnston says that by offering this basic human need, the Food for Kids Back Pack program allows “kids that probably wouldn’t have had a chance” the opportunity to reach their full potential. She reports that of 900 Arkansas high school seniors in the program last year—all of whom graduated—76 percent have gone on to enter college, vocational-technical school, or the military.

Now the pantries and programs are the ones in need of help. Youth pastor Andrew Scott of First United Methodist Church, whose youth group coordinates Dickson’s program, recently encouraged community members to give their time, money and food to Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, which sells the food for the Back Pack program. The constant need for volunteers, food, and money won’t go away, Scott adds, until there’s no more hunger.

“When you start a program, you always want it to grow,” Scott told The Dickson Herald, “but this is one we want to shrink and disappear.”

How do schools in your community deal with food insecurity among their students?

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