Food for Hungry Children - Joint effort aims to provide nourishment to needy students
Loaves and Fishes Food Bank and Mercy Foundation are working together to battle child hunger in Carroll County through the food bank's Operation Food For Hungry Children.
On Wednesday, Mercy Foundation's Kristy Estrem and Cody Qualls presented Loaves & Fishes with a $10,000 check to help with the program.
Operation Food For Hungry Children began last year when nurses in the Berryville School District alerted Loaves and Fishes to hungry children in the community. While children had access to free and discounted lunches at school, many of them had no food to eat at home on the weekends. To meet this need, Loaves and Fishes partnered with Mercy Hospital of Berryville to create the program, unofficially dubbed the "backpack" program.
Mercy provides "leadership for fund-raising and community awareness," and Loaves & Fishes supplements these funds with food purchased at wholesale or discount prices and the space to house and volunteer resources to coordinate the program. The program provides children identified by school nurses, counselors, teachers, cafeteria workers and other staff as being in need with a backpack full of food for the weekend.
A nurse coordinator notifies Loaves and Fishes of the number of backpacks needed each week and a representative from the school picks up the backpacks each Friday to distribute at school. In Berryville, about 100 backpacks are delivered each week.
Dale Hunter, executive director of the program, said that she is trying to provide food for 10 percent of the students eligible for free and reduced school lunches. She believes in the program because it "gives a voice" to children in the community.
"Kids don't have choices," Hunter said. "They are very dependent on the adults in their lives. We don't worry about why they're hungry, just that they are."
Last year, the program distributed 3,238 backpacks, with an emphasis on nutrition. An average backpack includes items such as oatmeal, cereal, single-serve meals, single-serve macaroni and cheese, granola bars, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, microwave popcorn, pudding, applesauce and fruit cups. Hunter searches for food low in calories, fat and sodium and high in protein, nutrients and fiber; an average backpack totals roughly 3,500 to 4,000 calories.
She said she hopes to step up nutrition this year, aiming to decrease the levels of sodium and sugar in each pack. This has posed a problem, since she cannot pack "things like fresh fruit."
"It all has to be pre-packaged, but sugar poses a big problem," she said, explaining that some cereal contains a "huge" amount of sugar. To remedy this problem, she has begun asking for cereal like Rice Krispies to replace Frosted Flakes and other sugar-heavy cereals.
She is also trying to limit the amount of sodium in each pack, having seen a huge reduction after removing ramen noodles from the packing list.
"The sodium was out of whack with ramen," she said.
To monitor the nutritional levels in the backpacks, Hunter keeps a spreadsheet to determine the nutritional values of each item and, subsequently, the pack as a whole.
After the program's first year, a survey of Berryville parents revealed that 73 percent of students affected by the program had improved their grades and experienced less illness, with 80 percent enjoying school more. Fifty-three percent of these parents said that their children's attendance had improved as well.
With these positive results, the program has expanded into Green Forest and also has been used as a model for a similar program in Eureka Springs. Hunter noted that the nurses at Green Forest have requested that the food items be sent in a plastic bag, as they already have backpacks to distribute to students. That difference aside, the program basically works the same way in Green Forest and Berryville.
The expansion means that Hunter has roughly 90 additional students to serve each week and an extra $21,600 in expenses for the school year. So far, two grants totaling $11,000 have been awarded to the program, with an additional $8,000 grant pending for Green Forest.
Green Forest Superintendent Matt Summers praised the program, saying that it gives the school an opportunity to reach many more students in need than in the past.
"I think it's priceless. I don't think you can put a dollar amount on it," he said. "If you can do anything to help improve a student's life then you need to jump through every hoop and pinch every penny to make that happen."
Estrem, president of Mercy Hospital, echoed Summers' sentiment. She wanted to partner with the backpack program when it began last year to satisfy Mercy Foundation's tenet of helping those in need.
"This is definitely helping meet the need for childhood hunger in the community," she said. "Children are our future and we want to give them a good start."
Dale believes that, by giving children immersed in poverty a better start, the program might help prevent future poverty.
"We're trying to break the poverty cycle," she said, explaining that she wants children to feel cared for. "What's intangible in the backpack program and what I hope these children feel is the love we put in these backpacks. People they don't know and may never meet love them."
With Mercy's help, the program has collected $36,229 from the Berryville community, as well as had 6,000 items of food donated and 700 hours of documented volunteer help. Dale said those interested in helping the program can donate money, food or time. To make a financial donation to Operation Food for Hungry Kids, write a check to Loaves & Fishes Food Bank with the note "Food for Hungry Kids" on the memo line. All checks can be mailed to Loaves & Fishes Food Bank at P.O. Box 149 in Berryville.
To volunteer or donate food, contact Hunter at 479-253-7585 or email@example.com.