Last year, over the winter holidays, I heard a heartbreaking story on NPR about schoolchildren who were undernourished during weekends and school breaks. A holiday break of 12 days was a long time to go without regular meals for students whose primary source of nutrition is the school cafeteria. Sitting in my car, I couldn't help thinking about how I had just spent those same days with family and friends and food—so much food—everywhere. I was stunned to realize that the time I looked forward to each year was a time of distress and hunger for many of America's children and families. We all know hunger exists, but the reality of these children's stories haunted me.
One in five children in this country lives in a food-insecure household. Nearly half our children will be on food assistance before they reach the age of 20. That's right, I said half. The NPR story went on to talk about weekend backpack organizations across the country that send students home with food for Saturday and Sunday and for school breaks to help them meet their nutritional needs and stop food insecurity in its tracks.
The story stayed with me for weeks. I couldn't stop thinking about those kids; that this might be happening in my hometown of Cambridge, MA. I imagined numerous students at my children's own school who fell into this category, and I became determined to help create a food safety net for them. I spent two months partnering with the school administration, our local Health Alliance, and municipal partners to implement a weekend food backpack program right here in Cambridge. By March, I raised enough funding to launch a pilot program, which sends two lunches, breakfasts, milk and fresh fruit home with participating students on Friday afternoons. This five pounds of nutritious food, none of which requires cooking, is discretely sent home in participating student's backpacks.
The results of the pilot program were immediate and gratifying. Fifty percent of the students participating in the program had medium to high absentee rates prior to the launch. By the end of the year, their attendance was up for all days of the week, especially on Fridays—food pickup day. Increasing attendance on Fridays means the students pick up their weekly homework bag, take spelling tests and participate in other school activities, setting them up for a better chance at academic success. There was also an increase in school engagement from the participating families—attending community events such as Literacy night, International Night and others after-school gatherings. Students and families came into more meaningful contact with the school counselors, who now have a better sense of their needs. For example, one counselor was able to get a child signed up for a free summer program simply by speaking to the mother every week as she picked up her children’s food.
Having seen these results, four additional elementary schools in our town want to implement this program next year. We are busily seeking donations to meet these urgent needs.
For me, the most important result of this program is the spotlight it has shone on the issue of hunger in our community. We’re now engaging in important conversations surrounding food that did not exist before. School counselors are more likely to offer food to a child who is exhibiting disruptive behavior in the morning before sending them back to class. We have discussed putting a refrigerator in the school nurse’s office, so that students who arrive at her office complaining of stomachaches can be offered a healthy snack. At lunchtime, students can get extra fruit if they have finished their school lunch and are still hungry.
I have constantly been surprised by this program since that day in January—surprised and heartened by the generosity of strangers, of doctors, of elected officials and friends. People want to help with this issue in any way, however small: making a quick phone call, donating $6.00, writing grants to potential donors—the list is endless.
When I look back at that day in January, I cringe at how little I knew about hunger. The people who need the backpack program are people we all know. Some are people in our community who you would never guess are in need. It could be me; next year, it could be you. But instead of waiting for fate to come someone else’s way, let’s solve this problem together, so it’s not anyone.
Alanna Mallon lives in Cambridge with her husband and her two children. She is a children’s clothing designer with a passion for solving the hunger crisis.