Weekend food packs at Duluth schools help tide kids overEach Friday, a total of 210 kids at Stowe, Laura MacArthur, Nettleton and Piedmont elementary schools get a bag full of nonperishable food to take home for the weekend.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
You could call them food fairies.
Each Friday morning for the past month, Stowe Elementary Principal Larry Udesen and school secretary Rosemary Donald have rolled a dolly of boxes down the hallways filled with 38 meal kits. They check their list, open a locker and put inside each student backpack a bag of four meals and drinks to help get a child fed through the weekend.
“Can you casually, discreetly, remind your students that the food is there?” Donald asked one teacher, whose class was at lunch.
Stowe is one of four schools in the Duluth district taking part in the backpack pilot program. Each Friday, a total of 210 kids at Stowe, Laura MacArthur, Nettleton and Piedmont elementary schools get a bag full of nonperishable food to take home for the weekend.
The program was launched in January with the help of $19,000 from Project Joy, a fundraiser held in honor of Patrick Plys, who died the same month, and with donations from Ordean, Northland and Minnesota Power foundations.
It’s part of a national effort that began in 1995 and is run by Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank. Second Harvest also works with a program in Superior and Solon Spring schools and several in northern St. Louis County, along with their area United Way organizations.
Of Duluth’s 8,758 students in kindergarten through 12th grades, 350 are homeless, but the food packs aren’t limited to children whose families are homeless, or even those enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program. Teachers and counselors easily know by behavior which students come to school hungry on Monday morning, and they’ve helped identify who needs the packs, said Shaye Moris, executive director of Second Harvest.
But because the organization doesn’t have enough money to fill all of the need, it has started with the schools with the most need. Already, Moris said, more families and another school — Lincoln Park Middle School — have asked for the food kits, requests her group can’t afford to grant.
Since the program launched, Moris said, she’s heard stories of kids eating some of the food on the school bus on the way home or stashing it under their beds so they don’t have to share with siblings.
“It really speaks to the need,” she said. “They need this nutrition. We don’t want them to stow food or eat it quickly.”
That phenomenon, said Debbie Wagner, Duluth schools families in transition coordinator, is one reason the program needs to figure out how to get more food to more students in need. At the end of the year, options for high schools such as food closets, which are available in metro-area schools, could be discussed, Wagner said, along with expanding the weekend food program to other schools.
It also underlines the importance of donations. Roughly $35,000 has been raised. Moris estimates another $30,000 is needed to supply enough food through 2013.
Superior has been able to sustain its program, which began in 2010 and serves about 70 students in all Superior schools. The National Bank of Commerce in Superior raises money, and other organizations also hold fundraisers, said Nicky Wilson, family services coordinator at Superior Middle School.
The bank began the backpack program on its own, packing the food and relying on community food donations until it partnered with Second Harvest, which improved its quality and efficiency, said Wilson and Cindy Theien, a mortgage banker at the National Bank of Commerce.
“The need is there; it’s constant,” Theien said, but the program is “really streamlined.”
How it works
The packs, which school employees pick up from Second Harvest, are filled with microwavable soup, pasta or stew, nonperishable milk and cereal, granola, fruit cups, cans of vegetables and juice. Forms went home for parents to sign, allowing the packs to come home with kids.
At Nettleton, where 80 students receive food, students are called to a room at the end of the day, where community volunteers give them grocery bags filled with the meals and the students put them into their backpacks, Wagner said.
Stowe serves a smaller group than Nettleton so Udesen and Donald handle the task, going locker to locker, only calling kids out of class if a locker isn’t labeled.
“Some of them are thrilled,” Udesen said. “Some say, ‘I’ve got a high school brother or sister and they’d like to be involved, too’ … and it hasn’t migrated up yet.”
The Boys & Girls Club of Duluth takes care of the Piedmont students. About 70 students who are bused to the club after school are handed the packs on their way out the door on Fridays, said Tim Caines, branch director.
Its students rely on the club for dinner on weeknights, and the pack ensures they have meals on the weekend, too, he said.
“It helps fill that gap,” he said.
While the potential social stigma of receiving free food isn’t much of an issue with younger kids, it can be at the high school level. That’s why in Superior discretion at all of the schools, but particularly the high school, is key, Wilson said. The 10 to 15 students who receive the food kits because they are couch-surfing or homeless get them privately from their counselor.
“And every once in a while, kids don’t want to take them,” she said.
In Duluth, once a month the pack will include information for parents on food shelves and where to find daily meals like those offered at the Union Gospel Mission and the Damiano Center. Some families go without food, Wagner said, when they are trying to maintain housing and pay utility bills.
“It really comes down to necessity pieces and how you balance that when you are on a very tight budget,” she said. “You possibly don’t have enough for meals.”