Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma started its Food for Kids Backpack Program in 2003 after learning about an Oklahoma City elementary school student who fainted while waiting in line on a Monday for lunch. The student had nothing to eat over the weekend.
In the 14 years since it began, the program has grown to include 18,816 elementary students at 512 schools. Now the food bank delivers sacks of food to schools across central and western Oklahoma that students can take home to make it through the weekend.
Oklahoma City Restaurant Week, June 9-18 at almost 30 participating restaurants across the metro, helps raise money for food bank programs, including its Backpack Program.
Order off the prix fixe menus at one any of OKC Restaurant Week participants and $1 for every lunch purchased and $2 for every dinner purchased will be donated to the food bank. Last years event raised $10,000 for the nonprofit funding the equivalent of backpacks for 50 students, or up to 50,000 meals for Oklahomans of all ages facing food insecurity.
The need is only growing, said Norman Public Schools superintendent Joe Siano. When he first began working in the district, about 20 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Now its around 50 percent.
Backpack Program participants are drawn from free and reduced-price lunch rolls. This year, he said, almost 500 Norman Public Schools students received the backpacks.
Just like with adults, if your basic needs arent being met, its hard to concentrate, Siano said. As adults, we have some control of our lives. As a young kid, if you dont know where your basic needs are coming from, how do you concentrate on math?
Lack of food affects every aspect of a childs life, including education. Kids who dont eat enough have trouble paying attention in class and are left vulnerable to more social and emotional problems.
Norman Public Schools director of guidance and counseling Sharon Heatly said food impacts everything.
This is such a critical time with brain and body development for students. They need proper nutrition to grow and be successful, she said. In addition to the physical effects, being chronically hungry creates this toxic stress with them that can have long-term effects.
Students might fall asleep in class or seem lethargic, she said. They might be quick to show frustration, as well.
Counselors can only do so much, said Monroe Elementary School counselor Sarah Kirk. In addition to administering the program at her school with a physical education teacher, she also helps get kids into the program.
We communicate a lot with teachers and families. Students may express a need, or the family may, she said. We observe kids who eat all of their lunch and ask for more or kids who come into breakfast starving.
Teachers and administrators keep an eye out for signs of chronic hunger and then work with parents to get the students in the Backpack Program.
Many times, a teacher will catch me in the hall or email me about a concern. We find a way to meet those needs, Kirk said.
Food bank volunteers pack bags of nonperishable, shelf-stable foods that are taken to the schools. There, the on-site coordinator will deliver them to students on Friday.
Having the food bank as a resource is important, but Kirk said the organizations years of experience are truly invaluable. Teachers and counselors have many duties, so having a partner that makes feeding kids easier is helpful.
An average weekend bag of food includes peanut butter, crackers, fruit cups, shelf-stable milk and other items designed to give kids enough to eat with little or no preparation. Forty-three students at Monroe about 10 percent of the schools students take part in the program.
Heatly said if students have young family members in need, the food bank sends home more food.
Families want the best for their children but dont have the means or resources to make that happen, she said. We want to let them know we care about the wellbeing of their child, too.
That includes times when the students are away from school, Siano said.
Safety and security is a priority, but calling off school for any reason at all has other implications, he said.
Closing school for weather means students dont have access to breakfast and lunch. And Kirk said its even more troubling over longer breaks.
Over longer breaks, like in winter and spring, our school partnered with the community to create a food drive to provide additional food during those extended breaks, she said.
Siano said the district also participates in the U.S. Department of Agricultures (USDA) Summer Food Service Program to help keep children fed through summer break.
We have a pretty robust summer feeding program with breakfast and lunch for any student in that area, he said. Whether urban, suburban or rural, people face some of those challenges. The federal program is great, but we will always need supplemental partners like the food bank to help us meet the needs.
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Print Headline: Long weekend: Backpack Program helps feed children when theyre not at school.