Stacy King calls all the children in her south Kansas City elementary school “friends.”
And when she talks with the kids, her affection spills out in the words she uses for them. Dumpling. Pumpkin. Princess.
So when they go without, the first-year principal admits, it’s hard to take. Especially when it comes to food.
“From one human to another, it hurts,” King said. “Just to know my friends don’t have enough.”
Like many schools across the suburbs and rural areas, her school, Center Elementary, has had too many children who often don’t have enough food at home.
Staff members see parents working hard to provide enough for their children, but families sometimes come up short. That’s one of the reasons the school became among the first in the Kansas City area to distribute Harvesters’ BackSnacks — weekly packs of food that include two breakfasts, two other meals and snacks.
“I think what happens as families have worked to create a better life, they move further south,” the principal said. “And they’re still bringing challenges with them.”
Just last month a little boy at the school who said he was hungry cried when he realized he was too late for breakfast. When he was offered a granola bar or crackers, he ended up with both.
Teachers also worry about the children who scarf down every bite of their lunch, concerned that it will be the last meal they receive until the next morning.
And then there are students like the fifth-grade girl who describes suppers at home where Mom eats last.
“She wants to make sure we have enough,” said the girl, who admits she used to get mad at her mom because she couldn’t afford to buy the snacks the girl wanted. “Now I know that she’s on a tight budget. I know she’s been through a lot, and I want to make it as easy as possible for her.”
Harvesters began the BackSnack program in 2004 after Feeding America, a national network of about 200 food banks, introduced the idea across the country. Researchers studying what they call “food insecurity” found that many children live in homes where families may not know where their next meal is coming from. And weekends, when the children were away from school, were the worst.
That first year of the program, Harvesters provided 65 students with BackSnacks throughout the school year. In about a decade, that number has grown to roughly 19,000, with 1,000 expected to be added by the end of this school year.
“We want to be a part of anything that helps our kids,” said Kelly Wachel, a spokeswoman for Center School District. “And brings hunger to light.”
Like at Center Elementary, which started passing out BackSnacks in 2006. More students could use the weekly food if the money were there to pay for it.
“We have 18 kids on our waiting list,” said Center social worker Tracye Smith. “Students have come in and said, ‘I want to get a BackSnack.’ Parents have called asking about the program.”
Roughly 95 percent of the students there are on free or reduced-price meals as working parents struggle with bills, rent and weekly groceries. Seventy kids receive BackSnacks. Often, officials say, teachers use a large portion of the budget they get for supplies on food for their students.
“Healthy kids learn better,” said Bob Bartman, superintendent of Center School District. “Our job is to teach young people things so they will be successful in life. To do that, we have to have healthy kids.”
One third-grader at Center said she takes the food home and sometimes shares with her family. Her young cousin likes the raisins.
“You get to get healthy food,” the girl said. Her favorite is the cereal and milk. The peas that sometimes come home? Not so much.
About 2 p.m. on a recent Friday, the principal went to Tracye Smith’s room, where food packs were ready to be distributed. Grades came, one by one, students lining up at the door.
As each child took a plastic bag of food, some tilted theirs up to the light to see what was inside. Was it the coveted fruit snack? The peaches every kid seems to love? Or maybe even the chocolate milk they sometimes get.
“Hey, Dumpling, are you here for your BackSnack?” King asked a first-grader as he wandered into the room. After a nod, he grabbed the bag and left smiling.
If a child misses school on Friday, Center staffers make sure that child’s pack goes home with another child who needs the help that weekend. Or staff may save the pack for the initial child to receive when he or she comes back on Monday.
One of the fifth-grade girls wishes that there were no BackSnack waiting lists and that all the kids in the Kansas City area had plenty of food when they’re not in school. Another said that when she gets her pack each Friday, she finally feels like she has enough food.
King listens to their words and is thankful her community helps out as it does.
“Can you imagine a child going home and not having dinner and then coming to school hungry?” King asked. “And then we have the gall to say, ‘Sit down and listen’?”
Sending home BackSnacks every week helps.
“I think it sends the message to our friends, our kids, that we care about you,” King said. “Not only from 8 to 4, but during the weekend so you can come back on Monday ready to learn.”BackSnack numbers grow
The number of students Harvesters reaches through the BackSnack program has skyrocketed in the past 10 years. Schools across the 26-county area also have children on waiting lists.
20,500 (projected)KC Challenge: Childhood Hunger
For the fourth year, The Star is partnering with Harvesters on a virtual food drive to raise money for the area’s hungriest children.
Over the first three years, the drive raised almost $700,000. All the money goes to Harvesters’ BackSnack program, which provides low-income children with two breakfasts, two other meals and other snacks each Friday during the school year to tide them over until they go back to school Monday.
If you’d like to give, go toFeedingKCKids.Harvesters.org. You can donate in a loved one’s name, with reader dedications published in The Star’s Christmas edition.