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Cambridge Tackles Student Hunger One Backpack At a Time

Cambridge Tackles Student Hunger One Backpack At a Time
By Michele Bennett Decoteau

One out of every 5 households in America lives with food insecurity, meaning they lack access to adequate food for an active, healthy lifestyle for everyone in the household. In Massachusetts, food insecurity is on the rise, according to Project Bread in Boston.

“One in every 6 kids experiences food insecurity,” says Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food for Free (foodforfree.org), a food rescue program in Cambridge.

Hunger is an issue that extends well beyond the dinner table and affects kids most. Their growing and developing bodies need plenty of calories and solid nutrition.

“If a child is hungry, if affects their learning and their health,” Purpura says. “Kids having the food they need has a longer-term impact and gives them the chance to learn and break out of the poverty cycle.”

While many students get help during the school day via free and reduced-priced breakfasts and lunches, what happens on the weekends?

“A teacher shared with the principal that on most Mondays, she had students who regularly complained of a stomach ache or not feeling well,” says Nikki Grizzle, marketing officer of Blessings in a Backpack. “Once the students ate, they were fine. This is what inspired our founder to start Blessings in a Backpack in 2008.”

Blessings in a Backpack (blessingsinabackpack.org) is a grassroots organization that provides non-perishable, child-friendly food every Friday to students. “We provide guidelines to local organizations who do the packing, and they all include at least two breakfast items like bagels, two entrée items, like pasta in a can, and two healthy snacks,” Grizzle added. “All the items need to be really child-friendly with pop-top cans and can be eaten without having to be heated.”

Blessings in a Backpack is feeding 513 students at nine schools throughout Massachusetts.

Others in Massachusetts have been inspired to start school programs through local food banks, including Alanna Mallon, Food for Free program director and a mother herself: “I was driving home in 2013, and this was after 12 days of family and friend parties and all the food around the holidays. I heard this story on NPR about kids being hungry over the holidays. I was thinking that food insecurity was all over the country, but here in Cambridge? I contacted the local school administration and found that there was a need for a weekend nutrition program.”

She started the Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program during the 2012-2013 school year with small steps, feeding a pilot group of 10 students. It grew quickly and is now serving 400 students in the Cambridge school system. Students are provided with two breakfasts, two lunches, snacks, two fresh fruits, and a vegetable, discretely tucked into their backpack on Friday afternoon.

“Allergies and dietary needs have been challenging, but we’ve done our best to accommodate them,” Mallon notes. “We offer vegetarian, Halal, nut-free, sugar-free, and milk-free options.”

Backpack food distribution is a family-friendly way to help meet the needs of the community on many levels.

“Emergency food from a pantry and meal programs are not always easy for families,” Purpura notes. “Oftentimes, food pantries are only open during the day or you have to stand outside in a line in your neighborhood to access them. Many community meals are a challenge for families because after working all day and getting the kids from school, it is difficult to make the timing work with homework. Backpack meals reach families in schools; it is meeting people where they are.”

While many may think such programs would be found only in large cities or traditionally disadvantaged areas, experts say that’s not the case — they’re increasingly found in cities and towns large and small all across the state.

“Since I started the Weekend Backpack Program here in Cambridge, many other cities and towns in Massachusetts have implemented their own programs, from small communities like Bourne, which serves 25 families, to larger cities like Brockton, which currently serves over 200 students,” Mallon says. “Some are run by the local food pantries or churches, some are run by the school districts themselves, and some are simply run by parents who want to help their children’s classmates. No matter the size of your city or town, or its perceived wealth, there are hungry people in every community.”


Reaching out in other ways

Conversations between schools, community, and parents have led to discovering other needs families have that are not being met.

“We are able to connect parents to other services like fuel assistance, summer camp scholarships, and Internet services,” Mallon says. This, in turn, leads to a stronger school-family connection, which leads to better outcomes for students.

Blessings in a Backpack serves students in kindergarten through high school. The food that goes home in the backpacks comes from a variety of sources. “In some places, we contract through the vendor the local school district uses,” Grizzle says. “And we have some districts who have extreme couponers help with additional items.” In Cambridge, food is also purchased from a variety of sources, including the school lunch food vendor.

Three other schools in the Cambridge area are starting in-school food pantries called School Food Markets. “These aren’t like a food pantry,” Mallon notes. “We have the usual shelf-stable food, but we also have fresh eggs, milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, music, food tastings, and staff from the schools also shop there. It is a great complement to the backpack program. It is human services in a humane way.”

These experts say those who want to get involved can become part of the solution. Contact your local school to find out if they have a backpack program. If they don’t have one, start one.

“I am always happy to help people get started. When I started, people were very willing to help me get educated about the need,” Grizzle says.

“So many people were willing to help me get started,” Mallon added. “I am happy to help answer questions about starting a program.”

If your school has a backpack program, adults can offer to donate time or money.

“We can feed a child every weekend for 38 weeks for $100,” Grizzle notes.

Adds Purpura: “People don’t realize the need in their own community but when they do, it is an ‘Ah-ha’ moment.”

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