Program at school aims to pack punch against hunger

Program at school aims to pack punch against hunger

CHAMPAIGN – Teachers know the telltale signs of hunger – children who ask for snacks before 10 a.m., wolf down two bowls of cereal at breakfast or seem tired and inattentive in class.

Studies have shown nutrition directly affects school performance, and across the country educators can see a difference in kids who don't get enough to eat at home.

Students at Champaign's Garden Hills School will take home backpacks full of food every Friday, courtesy of a pilot project run by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and funded by the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana.

"Hunger doesn't stop on the weekends," said Junior League member Claire Newman, driving force behind the project.

At least two-thirds of Garden Hills' 324 students are eligible for subsidized lunches at the school, but the Backpack Buddies program, which began last Friday, will reach families from a range of income levels, said school social worker Penny Griglione.

"We have a lot of students and families in the building who could benefit from it," Griglione said.

Kids who miss breakfast in the morning, even if they just oversleep, tend to have poor attention spans and fidget in class, said Principal Cheryl O'Leary.

"You work so much better on a full stomach," O'Leary said. "We can educate them so much better if they're adequately fed."

The Backpack Buddies food promotes good nutrition – user-friendly snacks like granola bars, peanut butter and crackers so kids don't reach for chips or candy. Griglione calls it "supplemental food," healthy choices for kids whose parents work all weekend or don't have enough food for snacks. The packs also have easy-to-prepare canned ravioli or spaghetti for kids who have to get meals on their own.

It's the only program of its kind in Illinois outside the Chicago area, said Jim Hires, executive director of the food bank.

Newman had read about similar programs in other states and contacted a district in St. Joseph, Mo., where the principal "couldn't say enough good about it," she said. "They're not starving on Monday morning. Their attention is better. And they're vested in it – they bring the backpacks back."

She tried to organize a local project last year but couldn't line up funding. The Junior League raised $5,000 this year – half from a matching grant from the insurance firm CCMSI – enough to feed up to 50 children for the school year, or $100 each. The Christian Social Action Forum, which sponsors the school snack program Project Good Start, also contributed $2,200. The money will be applied toward next year's Backpack Buddies.

The food bank will supply the food, which it can get at deep discounts, Hires said. Junior League volunteers will meet there once a month to pack groceries into individual bags, which will be delivered to the school each week. The food bank will add fresh fruit as available.

Garden Hills will select students and distribute the backpacks every Friday. Some will have enough food for two or three children to provide for siblings at home. The donated backpacks look like any other, with Spiderman, Barbie and other popular logos, to avoid pinpointing kids, Griglione said.

It's hard to assess the need, O'Leary said. Some families ask for help, but not all.

Griglione asked teachers, lunch supervisors and other staff to recommend children who might benefit from the program. Then she contacted parents to see if they were interested. So far, about 30 have signed up. The program is based on need, not just income.

"We have a lot of people who work extremely hard and are very capable but need extra assistance," Griglione said. "When budgets are really stretched, some of these things are necessary to make ends meet."

Medical bills or other unexpected costs can force families to choose between food, medicine and the power bill, she said. The school has families still supporting relatives displaced by Hurricane Katrina, O'Leary said. And each year, at least one Garden Hills family will suffer a crisis – a house fire, death in the family or loss of a job.

Most schools typically have one or two children who are homeless, living at shelters, churches or with extended relatives, O'Leary said. Three years ago, one 7-year-old Garden Hills student was living in a van.

"There are really people who don't have anything, or enough. They might have one solid meal a day, as opposed to three," O'Leary said.

Almost 15 percent of food bank clients with children say their kids skipped meals in the last year because there wasn't enough money for food.

The project will be evaluated throughout the year, and if things go well it could be expanded at Garden Hills and other Champaign schools, O'Leary said.

The food bank has already had inquiries from other schools in the county, but everything depends on funding – from donors, PTAs or schools themselves, Hires said. He and Newman want the program to grow slowly, to ensure they don't have to retrench at some point.

"It has to be sustainable," Hires said.

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