Across the country, teachers and school nurses have found that in some instances, Monday morning comes and they are forced to compete against hunger for the attention of their students.
Food insecurity is defined as "a household that is uncertain of having or being able to acquire enough food to meet the basic needs of all household members because of insufficient money and other resources for food," said Carlie Jones, school nurse in the Richland School District and liaison of the Essex-area program.
Failure to address hunger creates consequences beyond the family dinner table. Research has clearly demonstrated a link between food insecurity and negative health and academic outcomes, said Jones.
The Feeding America BackPack Program (the name of the national program) is administered in this area by the Southeast Missouri Food Bank. Volunteers fill backpacks with meals and snacks which are distributed on Friday each week during the school year. The backpack is designed to feed a family of four for the weekend.
The first to initiate Backpacks for Friday in Stoddard County was the Essex area, mainly through the efforts of Jones. She read about the program and decided she wanted to implement it for children and their families in the Essex and Grayridge area. She started by sending out letters asking for donations in the local community. The response was immediate and generous, says Jones.
The cost of the program is $320 for one child and their family for the 36-week school year. Packpacks are filled with non-perishable food provided by SEMO Food Bank.
Jones said the program served 13 children and their families during the past school year. She said that total will double in the current year, thanks to the donations by Essex area businesses, churches, civic groups and individuals. Jones has already raised the needed $8,000 to complete the upcoming school year. She notes that extra backpacks are sent to the families over holidays and school breaks, with the exception of the summer break at Richland Schools.
"I wanted to make it a community effort," said Jones. "The response from the community has been a blessing."
Heather Mayo, middle school counselor in the Bloomfield School District and liaison of the BackPacks for Friday program in the Bloomfield Schools area, said she took a different approach when it came to raising funds for the program. She is a member of the Liberty Hill General Baptist Church, and discussed the idea with church members. They were supportive of the idea. She then approached other churches who were also excited about the program. The First General Baptist Church in Bloomfield, Trinity United Methodist Church in Bloomfield, St. Joseph General Baptist Church in Idalia and the Assembly of God in Bloomfield all donated $2,000 to implement the program in the area served by Bloomfield School District.
Mayo said that will also them to 30 children and their families over he 36 week period beginning with the start of the 2012-13 school year.
Mayo said the guidelines for determining eligibility are not necessarily based on the same criteria as free and reduced meals at the schools.
"We want to make this flexible enough to help individual families based on their need," said Mayo. "If a family member loses their job, is injured, or suffers any kind of financial hardship, we want to be able to assist that family."
Jones adds that she relies on input from teachers and people in the community in helping get the backpacks to those families most in need.
One of the biggest obstacles to starting the program in Bloomfield was finding a place to store the food that is shipped once a month from SEMO Food Bank, according to Mayo. She said the St. Joseph church offered to the provide storage area. Volunteers will fill the backpacks there and then bring them to Bloomfield for distribution.
Jones said a room at the Richland Schools is used to store the food that is to be delivered to the Essex area.