Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Packs for Kids

Jessica Wright, Home Delivery Coordinator for the University District Food Bank, reflects on the evolution of their Packs for Kids program.

The 2011-2012 academic year was University District Food Bank’s first time partnering with Eckstein Middle School to provide backpacks of weekend food to students in need. By the time summer arrived, we had many parent volunteers helping pack up food to approximately 35 students each week.  Even with the initial success of the program, we wondered if these middle school students had hungry siblings. We all were pretty sure that they probably did. Thanks to some of the Eckstein volunteers’ help, we were able to connect with some of the elementary schools in our service area and introduce the idea of sending weekend food home with some of their students. Now we are beginning a new school year with Eckstein and a few of these additional elementary schools, committed to making sure these children are able to grow into healthy and successful young adults.

We want food going home in backpacks to meet three qualifications: 1) be nutritious and support growth, 2) be easy enough to prepare for the students to safely do themselves, and 3) be culturally appropriate and desirable to eat. Figuring out what to put in each backpack that met these three goals was a process of trial and error throughout the year. It will continue to be so this year as we serve new students and keep serving some of the same students who received similar items last year. It was a surprise to find out after a couple months of distributing backpacks that peanut butter and jelly was not something that most of our Eckstein students wanted to receive. Was it only me that packed a PB&J sandwich for lunch every day from Kindergarten through 10th grade?

As we add elementary students to our program this year, we’ll have to take another look at what these younger students are capable of preparing for themselves and how much they’re able to carry home. Opening up a can of soup, pouring it into a bowl, and microwaving it for the amount of time it says on the can’s instructions are reasonable expectations for an 11-13 year old student, but not necessarily for the younger and wider age range we’ll serve at the elementary schools. I also had to remind myself many times in the last few weeks that the successful model we have at Eckstein Middle School is not to be used as a cookie cutter for programs we begin in other schools. Each school will have their own set of needs. While it feels good to have a year of the program in our experience file, I expect that this school year will provide many more unique circumstances to work through.

From the beginning of our working relationship with the Eckstein Middle School PTSA, I was impressed with their energy and compassion for hungry students. Groups at the elementary schools are stepping up and showing enthusiasm too. These parents are concerned with the well-being of not only their children, but their children’s classmates as well. There are signs of increased numbers in the Eckstein program, and as we branch out to local elementary schools I have hope that we will be able to help out a lot of families that are under a large amount of stress just trying to make ends meet. Giving these students healthy food that they can easily take home and safely prepare for themselves is a challenge. Succeeding, however, results in healthier and more focused students ready to learn when they get to school on Monday morning.

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