As each fifth-grader takes a seat inside counselor Rachael Swanson’s office during lunch, she tells them to start thinking.
By now, after many lunch meetings like this one at Raytown’s Blue Ridge Elementary, they know what Mrs. Swanson wants. They need to recall what they had for dinner the night before, and when they do, they give her a thumbs up.
It’s all part of the counselor’s plan to address her students’ nutritional needs — as well as other basic needs — from every angle she can. She makes sure these kids get their weekly BackSnack, which will provide several meals they can eat themselves or share with family. She often has a waiting list for the packs.
“But I don’t feel comfortable saying, ‘Here’s your bag of food, go on your way,’” Swanson said.
So she educates. She breaks down nutrition with her students and has them dissect a dinner to see what nutrients it provided. She talks to struggling families to make sure there’s enough food at home. She gives out surveys to see what their other needs are, like clothes or beds for all the children.
Then, when needed, she provides brochures and names of pantries or medical clinics, and even works with her church to offer winter coats or other crucial clothing items.
And with food, she goes beyond the weekly BackSnack. Students can earn an opportunity to get inside a kitchen and learn to make a healthy snack. They take home recipes.
“She goes above and beyond,” said Holly Grimwood, assistant director at Raytown Emergency Assistance Program, known as REAP, one of the agencies to which Swanson has referred people. “She’s giving families the information.”
Officials at Blue Ridge, and educators across the Kansas City area, have seen needs increase. And in the past few years, basic needs such as food and clothes and hygiene products have become harder for some families to afford.
As Blue Ridge Principal Danielle Miles puts it: “Poverty has its fingers in every community.”
Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study shows 20 percent of the children in Jackson County are “food insecure,” meaning they don’t always have enough food at home. In Clay County, it’s 17 percent, and in Platte County, 16 percent. In more-rural Bates and Henry counties, 23 percent of children are food insecure.
On the Kansas side: 22 percent of children in Wyandotte County are food insecure, and 17 percent in Johnson County.
Blue Ridge students get their BackSnack packs on Mondays. Fridays can be hectic, and Swanson wants to make sure the kids have food throughout the week.
A volunteer with REAP drops off the packs to Blue Ridge and several other schools.
“This might be the one nourishment these kids get” at home, said Al Brown, REAP’s executive director. “That scares me.”
One girl at Blue Ridge recently told the group of students in Swanson’s office that her family eats fast food because her mom doesn’t have a lot of money. “That is what we can afford,” the girl said.
That became a teaching moment for the counselor.
Swanson broke a meal down, adding up what the ingredients would cost. How much would a pound of meat cost, spaghetti sauce, pasta? Then divide by the number of people in a family it will feed, she told the students.
“I’m able to show them that’s $1 per person for a meal,” Swanson said. “I let them know it’s easier, more convenient and cheaper to cook at home. The fourth- and fifth-graders are starting to get it.”
What’s big for Swanson and Miles is that kids understand what it takes to get the right nutrition.
“We can give kids things, but that’s not empowering them to make the right choices for themselves,” Miles said. “If we don’t teach them to be responsible for their own nutrition, then it’s not helping the child grow.”
As Swanson meets with her fifth-graders, they begin to go around the small table and discuss the meals they had the night before.
One girl had pizza. No fiber there, but protein from the cheese and vitamins and minerals from the tomato sauce and mushrooms.
Another girl had a confession. “Don’t judge me,” she tells them, smiling. “I had Burger King.”
One girl said she didn’t have anything to offer.
“You didn’t have anything?” Swanson said.
“I wasn’t hungry,” the girl replied.
A friend next to her piped up: “It was her birthday.”
“Did mom make dinner?” Swanson asked. “And you didn’t have anything?”
The girl shook her head and the counselor knew to move on.
If students say more than once that they didn’t eat dinner the night before, Swanson will take them aside to talk privately. But what happens more often is a student comes to her.
Just the other day, she said, one of the boys came to her office with a question: “Miss Swanson, can I be in BackSnack?”
He said he wanted the weekly food pack for Wednesdays, when school gets out early. On those days, he told her, there was never anything in the refrigerator to eat after school.
She added one more name to the waiting list.
To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feeding KC kids
This holiday season, The Star is again partnering with Harvesters on a virtual food drive to raise money for the area’s hungriest children.
All money goes to Harvesters’ BackSnack program, which provides low-income children with packs of food each Friday to tide them over until they return to school Monday. A $25 donation provides a child BackSnack packs for a month; $250 provides BackSnacks for a year.
If you would like to give, go to FeedingKCKids.HarvestersVFD.org. Or you can send a check to Harvesters, 3801 Topping Ave., Kansas City, MO 64129. You can donate in a loved one’s name, with reader dedications published in The Star’s Christmas edition. The deadline for dedications is 5 p.m. Dec. 21.