Spend even a small amount of time around a kid and it is infinitely clear that he or she is pretty much hungry all the time.
Parents joke about the gallons of milk their rising basketball star daughter requires per week, but for parents with barely enough to go around, this fact of childrearing isn't funny.
Especially in a culture like ours where food is love.
"Most parents want the best for their children, but in these times, it's getting harder to provide that," said Naomi Spence, program director for the Backpack Club, The Hunger Coalition's outreach to school-aged children who are lacking a solid food source. "A lot of people have been trying to do it alone for a while and they are horrified at the prospect of asking for help."
That stress and stigma filters to the kids; the kids reflect that back on the world by coming to school listless, unmotivated and down. Studies show malnutrition and chronic hunger lead to a decrease in learning potential and achievement and cause long-term mental, physical and emotional developmental issues.
The burden was on teachers and social workers to try and address the problem. Thus was born a collaboration with social workers on the front lines making contact with at-risk students, and a major funding stream established from the Wood River Women's Charitable Foundation.
"The backpack program captured the interest of our members, who voted overwhelmingly for it," said Carol Scheifele-Holmes, publicity chair for the foundation. "It responded to a compelling need in the community during the economic downturn. It was a creative and new approach to a real issue."
The foundation gave $25,000 to the coalition this year for its Mobile Food Bank programs. And the first truckload designated for kids was packed up this week by 25 or so volunteers from Light on the Mountains Spiritual Center, whose focus is solely on bagging the meals and snacks each week from now until school's end next year. That can mean anywhere from 120 to nearly 150 a week. Inside is the equivalent of two breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks.
"The high schoolers have been virtually impossible to reach. They are so much more aware of the stigma," Spence said.
To get around that with older kids, plastic grocery bags are now slipped into lockers Thursday nights after school so they can just go into backpacks.
"I can tell you how I can most directly see the difference," said Tod Gunter, social worker at the Wood River Middle School. "My office used to be the go-to office for the hungry kids because I had a stash. I'm not seeing the chronically hungry. And when we do, being able to say 'this bag of food is for you, it's yours,' that empowerment for some kids is like 'Wow, really?' and they are happy to take it."
When Bellevue Elementary's social worker Beth Citron gets a sense of a child in need, she often uses the pack of food to start a dialogue to get parents more information about other services that can ease their burdens.
Spence said the coalition is always striving to provide the most nutritionally sound package at the best price, and partners like Albertsons have been vital guides to those choices. Each bag for an elementary school kid is about $4 while those for middle and high school students are about $7 per bag.
Deliveries are made to eight Blaine County public schools, including Head Start. Hemingway Elementary and Woodside Elementary have tied for the largest demand each year.
"We are prepared to meet whatever the need is," Spence said. "We don't have a cap."
Jennifer Liebrum: firstname.lastname@example.org
TO GET HELP: JUST ASK
Any school social worker can assist in getting a child into the Backpack Club. Any child 18 and under is eligible, no questions asked. To contact The Hunger Coalition directly, call 788-0121.