Community initiatives aim to fuel the future by feeding hungry children

Too many children know the feeling of having a hungry belly and not having enough food to eat three meals a day.

That hollow rumbling sound from an empty stomach seems to echo across the room when it feels like forever until the next meal, or even snack.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 13 million children across the country do not have consistent access to healthy, nutritious foods.

The Michigan League for Public Policy Kids Count Data Book from 2016, showed that nearly 20 percent of children in St. Clair County live in poverty. More than 38 percent qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

How is a young student supposed to concentrate on learning, when an aching or noisy tummy keeps interrupting?

Food fuels performance
Leaders in the St. Clair County schools are investigating ways to prevent their students from being a part of those statistics, using their resources to find funding for programs like Fueling the Future in Algonac and the Friday Food for Kids program, currently in four elementary schools: Belle River in Marine City, Cleveland in Port Huron, Woodland Development Center in Marysville, and Woodrow Wilson in Port Huron.

With the Friday Food for Kids program, volunteers fill a backpack with enough food to send home with students for an entire weekend.

Fueling the Future also offers backpacks, but goes a step further giving students access to other essentials they might need, like soap or toothpaste.

While organizers say they don't have hard data to show that students who eat well before coming to school perform better, they see a difference.

"If you're hungry, your main concern is not necessarily what's going on in the classroom," says Bill Westerhof, who organizes the backpack program and teaches at Belle River Elementary School in Marine City.

In speaking with other teachers, Westerhof says they see a big difference when children come to school after a weekend compared to a longer break. After a weekend away from school and food that was sent home, children seem prepared to learn come Monday. However, after a longer vacation, where access to healthy food may have been limited, students struggle to focus and settle in to their schoolwork.

Westerhof says his school district has families who have needed help putting food on the table since the economic downturn, so he began looking for ideas to assist them.

"We're in a low economic area here, and families came to us looking for help of any kind," Westerhof says.

He discovered Blessings in a Backpack more than eight years ago. The idea is simple--send students home with a backpack full of food on Fridays to make sure they enough nourishment for the weekend.

After initially partnering with the Blessings in a Backpack organization the funding source has changed, but the process of delivering food on Fridays remains the same.

The district now partners with the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, and the Friday Food For Kids program has continued and expanded. It costs about $100 per student to provide food every Friday for a school year.

The program is open to anyone who receives free or reduced-price meals at school, which Westerhof says is about 70 percent of the district's 450-plus students.

Lindsey Parlow, who coordinates the programs through the Community Foundation, says about 312 students are helped each week at four St. Clair County Schools through the backpack program. The schools are chosen based on need, partnerships, and available resources.

Typically, the students receive enough food for themselves for the weekend, but often there will be a meal kit, or boxes of macaroni and cheese that can feed the whole family.

At Belle River, between 70 and 80 children take home backpacks each week, most of them at the lower elementary level.
Westerhof says the number of students taking backpacks home each week tapers off as they get older because it becomes more conspicuous, and some children don't want to be seen carrying that backpack home. But help will be available if or when they need it.

In the Algonac School District, the program has grown beyond just Friday food backpacks, it includes toiletries and other household goods families may need.

Algonac Supt. John Strycker said knowing children may not have enough to eat makes him wonder how well they are paying attention at school. Common sense tells him a student will do better if he or she is fed. They will be at school, do better on tests and get better grades.

"If almost half of my kids are hungry, are they paying attention?" Strycker asks.

Knowing the answer was likely no, finding a solution became a priority. What started as a Friday backpack program at Algonquin Elementary School quickly expanded to help families at all stages.

Now in its second year, Fueling the Future stretches beyond elementary school and beyond food, benefitting 280 students and their families.

"It's now in all the schools," says Lija Currier, Fueling the Future program director. "Every family members receives food in all grades. That's just amazing."

Students are also able to take advantage of resource closets that have everyday goods like soap, and toothbrushes, anything they might want to take care of their daily needs.

The program extends beyond just Fridays, Currier says the district is working hard to make sure enough food is sent home during extended breaks, and over the summer.

"Helping even one child is a success," she says, noting that she's always available to help out.
Like the Friday backpack program, students are selected based on need. Sometimes a teacher will recommend a student, and Currier will reach out to the family, or a family might contact the school district looking for assistance.

Community support needed
The schools look to the community to help support the programs, whether it be a monetary donation or giving time.

Volunteers help each week, bagging up whatever a student needs. The bags are then placed directly into lockers, and no one else needs to know, reducing the stigma children might feel.

Strycker, Currier and Westerhof are hopeful the need for extra help will reach zero.

"My goal and vision is for no child to go without food for 365 days," Strycker says.

For now, the need is not dwindling and supplemental programs like these are essential. So, leaders will keep working hard to make sure students get what they need so they can focus on their education.

In addition to support from the Community Foundation, Algonac has also seen support from the Rotary Club and the Lioness Club.

Both programs rely on the generosity of others to keep going. Volunteers are needed each week to put food in each backpack, and donors are needed to keep the food chain going.

People interested in helping out can call their local school for more information.

To donate, visit http://www.stclairfoundation.org/funds/current, and select a program to support.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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