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Reaching out to hungry kids during the school year

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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Hungry Kids Packing

Nearly six out of every 10 Arizona children rely on free- and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches during the school year to provide them with the healthy food they need to stay focused in class and keep active.

But what happens on the weekends?

In Prescott, Humboldt and Chino Valley school districts, students in need, identified by school officials, go to the school nurse’s office before heading home on Friday to discreetly pick up a backpack containing two breakfasts,  lunches, dinners and some snacks.

Reaching out to hungry kids during the school year KidsAtSchoolBackpacksHP“This week, volunteers packed backpacks for 140 children in Prescott, 100 in Humboldt and 150 in Chino Valley school districts,” said Ron Barnes, founder of the Hungry Kids Project in Prescott.

The project started feeding 15 children four years ago, and the number of children served has grown each year, Barnes said.

“Getting packers is easy, but raising money for all of that food is a challenge, especially when there’s so many other things competing,” Barnes said. “We’re feeding as many as we can with the money we’ve got. If we could raise more money, we could feed more kids.”

The group also grows vegetables in community gardens in Prescott Valley and Prescott that they donate to families in need, Barnes said.

A similar program is helping children in Sierra Vista.

Reaching out to hungry kids during the school year Hungry-Kids-PackingInside

Volunteers with the Hungry Kids Project in Prescott pack food-filled backpacks children in need take home after school on Friday. Photo courtesy of Hungry Kids Project

Sierra Vista Unified School District public information officer Sarah Pacheco started Peach’s Pantry to provide students in need with food during weekends.

“I distribute food backpacks through the school nurses every Friday throughout the school year,” Pacheco said.

In spring 2013, Peach’s Pantry started providing 30 students with backpacks filled with canned soups, microwaveable meals and other foods kids can easily make themselves, and now serves 75 students a week, Pacheco said.

Volunteers sort incoming donations of non-perishable food in small containers and community groups help too.

“It was a very small program at first; however, the community has really gotten behind the effort and we have been doing well this past semester with some grant money and ample donations,” Pacheco said.

Peach’s Pantry has considered providing food at the sites where Summer Food Service Program meals are provided, “but has not had the resources to make that happen yet,” Pacheco said.

Reaching out to hungry kids during the school year BackpacksWithFoodInsideIn 2007, Kitchen on the Street, a nonprofit organization founded by Lisa and Vince Scarpinato, began providing Phoenix-area school children in need with Bags of Hope – backpacks filled with shelf-stable meals and snacks for the weekend.

“Being a mother, I can’t imagine how I would feel if I couldn’t give that food to my child,” said Lisa Scarpinato, CEO of Kitchen on the Street in a video on the nonprofit’s website. “I would be so thankful to someone who could give them that food so they wouldn’t go hungry.”

Washington Elementary School District awarded Kitchen on the Street and CEO Lisa Scarpinato the 2013 Lamp of Learning Award for the group’s work feeding more than 1,100 children at 23 schools throughout the metro Phoenix area.

Throughout the school year, Roosevelt School District in South Phoenix “feeds students by offering dinner at multiple school sites,” said Joseph Ortiz, district communications director.

“We try to serve two to three hot nutritious meals per week,” Ortiz said. “We are always open to partner with other community organizations to expand our programs.”

Flagstaff Unified School District has “several programs through our schools and Family Resource Center that help our homeless and in-need families throughout the year through grants and other resources,” said Karin Eberhard, district community relations coordinator.

“This includes but is not limited to backpacks of food for weekends and long holidays, clothing, and other assistance as needed,” Eberhard said.

Many other nonprofits and community agencies statewide have partnered with school districts and organizations that support them to help students and their families.

Some organizations like the Yavapai Food Council, a non-profit that focuses on sustainable food solutions and hunger elimination, have connected emergency food providers with local ranchers and farmers.

In the past four years, the Yavapai Food Council’s Healthy Food Grants have provided $30,000 to emergency food providers to buy local, fresh produce and protein to supplement shelf-stable commodities in clients’ food boxes, said Amy Aossey, executive director of the group which is based in Sedona.

“We have witnessed farmers offering 50 percent off to the recipients, allowing twice the fresh produce they could purchase elsewhere,” Aossey said.

Grant recipients have used the money to buy whole, processed sides of beef, shares for late summer and fall produce harvests, and summer crops such as whole ear corn, tomatoes, squash and greens, Aossey said.

“We have expanded that this year to help programs that are either working with Arizona Department of Education’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables program or the Farm-to-School programs to help them get additional funding,” Aossey said.

Aossey said she hopes that in the next grant cycle some schools or organizations supporting schools will apply for and receive funding.