We have a saying around here that goes, “Hunger never takes a break.” The statement is simple, but true: this basic human need affects people of all demographics. But food insecurity is a particularly pressing issue for our most vulnerable neighbors—children and seniors—who often rely on others to take care of them. Nearly 14,000 children in Chester County qualify for free or reduced price lunches through the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program. It is a huge help to children and their families that meals during school are provided, but that doesn’t help to address the weekend. Hunger definitely doesn’t take a break just because it’s a Saturday or Sunday.
This realization was the impetus behind our Weekend Backpack program, a food distribution initiative that brings nutritious foods to children at school every Friday. Using a rotating variety of shelf-stable foods that are purchased by the Food Bank, volunteers pack resealable bags for local children, and these bags are put into backpacks of qualifying students at schools and after-school programs. The bags are filled with easy-to-prepare foods like macaroni and cheese, canned tuna and peanut butter, and help make sure that families have enough to eat during the weekends.
The students who take the backpacks home are those eligible for free or reduced meals, and also, at the discretion of school officials, those who aren’t eligible for the school meal subsidy programs, but may be facing crises or ongoing problems at home that make food scarce. From November 1, 2016, through June 1, 2017, our Backpack program distributed approximately 121,391 pounds of food to children throughout Chester County.
One of the schools that is part of our Weekend Backpack program is the Chester County Family Academy (CCFA), an elementary charter school in West Chester (also one of the sites of our Fresh2You Mobile Market!). This year, CCFA has 110 students coming from West Chester, Coatesville, Downingtown, Great Valley and Kennett Square. About half of the students are ESL students, and approximately 97 percent qualify as economically disadvantaged.
“Basically, our whole school is at risk for social, emotional and financial challenges,” said the school’s CEO, Susan Flynn. “Because our students qualify under the free and reduced lunch program, we provide breakfast, lunch and snacks for our students, but what happens on the weekends? When they come to us on Monday morning, you can see them waiting for their breakfasts.”
For the past four years, the Chester County Food Bank has been delivering weekend backpacks on Fridays to students at CCFA. Susan says she can really see the importance of the program and the difference it’s been making to her students. “We’re only kindergarten through second grade, and you see the kids carrying home these packs that are five or six pounds! Our children feel fulfilled by this; they feel strong because they’re carrying these backpacks and because they’re taking on this responsibility of helping to provide food to their families,” she said.
Susan also notes that every family in the school is offered a weekend backpack, so none of the students feel different or singled out. She says that she and the other teachers never emphasize being worried about the kids or their families, or hunger issues—they simply try to make the experience exciting and special.
“We make sure they know they need to bring their special backpack back on Monday, and the children get excited because there’s always something in there for them and for their families!” she said.
Susan reports that the families appreciate and need the food, and are aware that CCFB is the organization behind the backpacks. The program helps to take a huge burden off many of these families. “They know their children will be fed,” Susan explained. “And this is so important, because if you’re not being fed, you don’t have energy and you can’t learn.”
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The Chester County Food Bank is the central hunger relief organization serving more than 120 food cupboards, meal sites and social service organizations throughout Chester County. We mobilize our community to ensure access to real, healthful food.
Photos: Chester County Family Academy