School is back in session and Monday mornings now mean children file out of school buses and into classrooms throughout the Northland — and soon some of them end up in the office of the school nurse or counselor.
They’re not paying attention in class. They’re being disruptive. They’re complaining of a headache.
But they’re not unruly. They’re hungry.
For some students, Friday lunch in the school cafeteria is their last meal before school starts again on Monday morning. That’s 48 hours without food.
“One in five children in the Northland goes hungry every day,” said Chris Evans, executive director of Feed Northland Kids, an organization that collaborates with Harvesters to provide grade-school students with backpacks of food on weekends during the school year.
Tammy Bunch, school counselor, and Stacey Walker, family involvement specialist, at Topping Elementary School in the North Kansas City School District, have seen the difference the BackSnack program has made for their students.
“Those students who get BackSnacks rarely miss a Friday of school,” Bunch said.
On Fridays, BackSnacks go home with nearly 3,000 students in 60 elementary schools in Clay and Platte counties.
“In a lot of cases, the BackSnack supplements the food at home,” Walker said. “But in some cases, it’s all there is.”
In the Northland, 34 percent of elementary students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program, Evans said, and one child in five lives in a “food insecure” household where the finances do not stretch far enough to provide consistently nutritious food.
BackSnacks are filled with four pounds of food to feed a child for a weekend. Included are two cereals, two protein-filled meals, two cartons of shelf-stable milk, a fruit, a vegetable and a few extra snacks.
The contents are chosen with the child’s abilities and the household circumstances in mind. Nothing needs to be refrigerated or heated — for homes where the electricity has been shut off. Cans and cartons are single-serving size with pop-tops so little fingers can open them without the help of an adult.
School counselors or social workers identify eligible households based on students in the free and reduced lunch program and on behaviors that may indicate a child is hungry. If a family has more than one child enrolled at the grade school, all receive their own BackSnacks.
The BackSnack program and food pantries are “the only way we can pay our bills on time,” said Angela Hale, 43, of Kansas City, North.
Her younger son, Jesse, a first-grader at Topping, began participating in the BackSnack program last year as a kindergartner. Other members of the household are an older son, Michael Hale, a 2014 graduate of Winnetonka High School, and her husband, Stephen Hale, 42.
The Hales do not qualify for food stamps and rely on Jesse’s BackSnacks and area food pantries. By doing so, they manage to feed their family of four on $200 a month.
Flavored oatmeal packets, granola bars and fruit snacks are some of the BackSnack food products “we normally wouldn’t be able to buy,” Angela Hale said.
Angela Hale is unable to work and receives monthly Social Security disability income. Stephen Hale works full time as a computer technician and is taking classes to earn certification in information security.
The certification will mean a higher paying job, Angela Hale said, “and then we can exhale.”
Feed Northland Kids was founded in 2009 after a study identified childhood hunger as a high-priority problem in Clay and Platte counties. In the beginning, 1,000 students in 46 schools participated.
BackSnacks do more than end hunger pangs.
The program was evaluated after three years, Evans said, and studies found that attendance was up, discipline issues were down and grades had improved at the schools participating in the BackSnack program.
“Students love feeling cared about by their school and the community,” said Cheryl Gunn Seidler, school social worker at Southeast and Union Chapel elementary schools in the Park Hill School District.
Southeast Elementary school has participated in the BackSnack program since 2009. Union Chapel has done so since 2011.
“Students and families express a need for this resource to reduce any food insecurity family members experience as an impact of poverty as parents strive to meet the many financial demands of running a family,” she said.
Those who participate in the program do so with enthusiasm. Seidler said students ask when the BackSnacks will be distributed if the school calendar or snow days interrupt the normal Friday distribution schedule.
Bunch and Walker remember a snow day that fell on the Friday before winter break in 2012 — it was the last day before break and that meant students would be away from school for two weekends. With classes canceled, students weren’t coming to Topping to get their two BackSnacks.
Bunch and Walker couldn’t imagine students going hungry for two weekends.
So, they made phone calls to teachers with four-wheel drive vehicles, loaded their own SUVs, made arrangements with parents who could get to the school and managed to deliver every BackSnack between Friday and Sunday.
Parents greeted them at the doors of their homes, Bunch recalled, with hugs, thank-you’s and tears of gratitude.
Supporting the program
Feed Northland Kids depends upon grants, corporate contributions, individual donors and its own fund-raising efforts to fund the BackSnack program.
Providing a four-pound package of food for 33 weekends costs $250.
Feed Northland Kids raises funds every year with a 5-kilometer walk/run. The 4th Annual Bill Cross 5K Walk/Run for BackSnacks begins at 8 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 12, at Zona Rosa.
For more information and to register, visit www.feednorthlandkids.org.
Northland Night at Harvesters
Feed Northland Kids volunteers assemble BackSnacks at Harvesters once a month.
To sign up, call Chris Evans at 816-301-4483.
Dates through the end of the year are Sept. 11, Oct. 9, Nov. 13 and Dec. 11.