We’ve all heard it: Johnson County’s rich. There can’t be problems with poverty here.
But despite its wealth, the county, like others in the metro area, face problems — and childhood hunger is a big one.
Local schools are a significant source of nutrition for hungry kids, especially through the National School Lunch Program, a federal program that provides free-and-reduced lunches for low-income children at public and nonprofit private schools across the country.
In the Shawnee Mission School District last school year, 36 percent of students — that’s 9,943 kids — received free or significantly discounted lunches through the program. In the Olathe School District, that number was 7,853 children, or 26.5 percent, and in the Blue Valley School District, it was 1,795 students, or 8.1 percent.
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Within districts, the numbers vary from school to school, but much as 85 percent of their student body patricipates in the program at some schools.
If those figures seem high, it’s actually the new norm. They’ve fluctuated less than 2 percent across all three districts during the last five years.
“Oftentimes, I feel I have to educate individuals both in our community and outside our community that Olathe serves a rich, diverse population,” said Alison Banikowski, deputy superintendent of the Olathe School District. “Eleven elementary schools (in Olathe) qualify for Title I. People are very surprised we have an elementary school (where) 85 percent are on free and reduced lunch.”
North of the river, in the Liberty and Park Hill school districts, it’s the same story. Those districts have 19 percent and 27.9 percent of their students, respectively, participating in the free and reduced school lunch program and have seen little change during the last five years.
Additionally, students who qualify for free or reduced lunches also qualify for free or reduced school breakfast.
The circumstances of food insecurity can happen to anyone, said Nancy Coughenour, director of food service for the Shawnee Mission School District. All it takes is for a parent to lose a job or have unexpected medical bills and, suddenly, there might not be enough money after paying the rent to buy enough food for the whole family.
Students on the reduced-cost program can get breakfast for 30 cents and lunch for 40 cents. To sign up for the free or reduced program, parents must fill out an application with the district.
Eligibility for the program, which runs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is based on your income. Children from families on food stamps automatically qualify.
“We have access to state database, and we try to match as many kids as we can (to automatically qualify),” Coughenour said. “We want the parents to call us, because that saves them a lot of time filling out paperwork.”
Another thing Coughenour stresses is the program’s confidentiality.
“Nobody knows, not even teachers, not even principals,” she said. “Your friends don’t know unless you choose to tell them. When they come through the line, they get the same options as anyone else.”
Educators take privacy concerns very seriously, hoping to reassure families and encourage participation in the program.
“For many people, their pride is there, and they don’t want people to know they’re struggling financially or struggling to put food on the table, so that confidentiality is very important to us,” Banikowski said.
Still, teachers keep an eye out for students who might benefit from signing up. If a student consistently brings almost nothing for lunch or acts hungry, they may suggest the program as an option for a family.
“There are people who are very prideful who don’t want to apply,” Coughenour said. “I tell them, ‘Let us help you for breakfast and lunch, so you can use your household income for things you need for you and your kids. ... It’s OK to be on it. Maybe you just need to be on it for this year.’ ... The biggest thing is that we want people to be on the program if they need to be on the program. It’s a safety net for the children.”
Making sure students have enough to eat provides visible benefits in the classroom.
“Kids (whose) stomachs are full will have better attendance, better attentiveness, and will learn better,” Coughenour said. “It’s a full circle.”
When school lets out for the summer, the help doesn’t stop.
Many districts have summer lunch programs for kids who need food year-round.
The Shawnee Mission district offered Summer Lunch Bunch at 10 schools for eight weeks this summer, providing a free lunch to any child who shows up — not just those who qualify for the free and reduced programs. They served 575 meals each day.
“(People) think everybody has all the money in the world, and there are families that are really struggling,” Coughenour said. “I had several phone calls from parents and grandparents that were in tears. They didn’t know how they were going to feed their kids over the summer, and it struck me that we were doing the right thing to feed kids in the summertime.”
Although the federal programs make the biggest impact at the elementary level, Coughenour said, they do help kids at every grade level.
The free and reduced lunch and breakfast programs do a lot to relieve childhood hunger in metropolitan Kansas City, but they can’t fully cover the need. That’s when local schools partner up with non-profit organizations to help.
Perhaps the most well-known partnership is the Harvesters BackSnack program, which provides a bag of food for students to take home on weekends to make sure they get enough to eat. Typically, a food package might contain cereal, shelf-stable milk, a couple servings of canned or fresh fruits and vegetables, pasta, and a soup containing meat.
The BackSnack program is focused on elementary school food needs across the entire city and surrounding suburbs.
Last year, there were 960 participants from Shawnee Mission and 490 from Olathe in the BackSnack program as well as 285 from Liberty and 555 from Park Hill.
Combined with all the other districts receiving such food aid, it adds up to a whopping 2,757,778 pounds of food for one school year.
According to Harvesters, there were 24,520 kids under age 18 who were food insecure in Johnson County in 2016. In Clay, Cass, and Platte counties combined, there were another 18,190 kids considered food insecure.
Other non-profits also have stepped in to help. North of the river, Feed Northland Kids works with Harvesters to provide BackSnack packages and other food aid. The organization has contributed money and time toward Harvesters’ BackSnack efforts in the Northland for the last eight years, according to Chris Evans, executive director of Feed Northland Kids.
“We saw those numbers (about food insecurity), and we were shocked,” she said. “We have enough wealth in these counties, that’s solvable. ... I wasn’t prepared to learn that it was a full (one-)third of our kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch. For us, the largest challenge in awareness. It’s just making people aware that this is a significant issue that they can play a role in solving.”
Feed Northland Kids sends a group to Harvesters about once a month to help assemble BackSnack deliveries for their area.
One misconception about the BackSnack program is that only one child per family can receive a food package.
Bethany Reyna, manager of the BackSnack program at Harvesters, said that she actively encourages schools to distribute packages to any siblings of a child identified as being food insecure.
Community for Kids oversees a similar program in the Blue Valley district to the BackSnack effort, providing 267 weekly food packs across 19 schools.
“We’ve gotten stories of the children standing in the hallways waiting for us to deliver,” said Gary Flick, past president of Community for Kids. “... (It) sounds like a small item, but I think this amount of food goes along way.”
They send home a variety of foods — including crackers, fresh fruit, pudding cups, and peanut butter and jelly jars — once per quarter. Flick said his organization is “conscious of what they can carry home,” because so many small children are transporting the bags home.
Many of the organizations and school districts say it’s easier to distribute food aid on the elementary level. By middle and high school, students tend to feel more of stigma toward bringing home extra food packs from school.
“As students get to middle school, they have some of the same difficulties with food and food insecurities,” Banikowski said.
She added that there is “reluctance on part of parents and teens, peer pressure, (fear of) anyone finding out, even if it’s slightly unfounded.”
Flick noticed a similar pattern.
“As you get older, the peer pressure changes, and becomes more intense, (but) we certainly know the need is there,” he said.
In Olathe, Mission Southside, another program that mirrors BackSnack, provides 250 weekly food packages to nine Olathe middle schools as well as two in Gardner.
“People do care that there are hungry kids in our community,” said Craig Howard, executive director of Mission Southside. “People are very generous with their donations. It really is an encouraging thing — people who have helping people who don’t have.”
Feed Northland Kids and Episcopal Community Services are taking a different approach at Winnetonka High School in the North Kansas City School District, partnering with the school in September to open a food pantry for students at the school.
“We know that hunger follows these kids when they leave elementary school,” Evans said. “That’s what’s behind the opening of this pantry at Winnetonka.”
Right now, the pantry is in one small room at the school and has about 50 different products, featuring a variety of canned fruits and vegetables as well as tuna and chicken. The pantry also stocks items such as oatmeal, granola bars, cereal, and pasta.
They’re anticipating at least 25 students might use it initially and want to reach other families in need as well as students who may be homeless, according to Beau Heyen, president and CEO of Episcopal Community Services.
Right now, Feed Northland Kids and Episcopal Community Services provide the foodstuffs, but Heyen said once they get feedback on the types of products the students want and need, they’ll put out a call for donations to the general public.
By next year, Heyen wants be able to offer fresh produce at the pantry, which has no strict eligibility requirements for student use.
“Our hope is when we look at the emergency food system ... we want to make sure people have access to food in a crisis,” Heyen said. “The working poor ... may not qualify for WIC and programs they actually need. A flat tire can send a family down a tailspin.”
To combat the stigma of carrying home bags of food, Heyen said they plan to distribute school pride duffel bags to all of the students.
“No matter how much we try to make that backpack look normal, it’s obvious it’s packed with food,” he said. “Every student in building will receive a Winnetonka duffel bag. That way, it’s something that everyone sees all the time, rather than something you get only if you’re in need or in crisis.”
About 57 percent of the 1,200 students at Winnetonka are on free or reduced lunch, but not all of those students will need the pantry.
“Teachers take more responsibility when they know a student is in need, and a lot of it is done on an individual basis,” Winnetonka Principal Eric Johnson said. “There have been times when I purchased groceries for students themselves, and I know teachers have done it, too.”
Johnson said the program was only possible because of strong community support.
For Heyen, offering supplemental food through the schools makes a lot of sense.
“It’s about making food accessible where people naturally go,” he said. “It used to be that, primarily, part of our culture was going to a place of worship, and as our culture changes, we have to change with it. ... Instead of making people in crisis find us, we need to find them.”
There are similar programs in the Park Hill School District at Plaza Middle School, Congress Middle School, Lakeview Middle School, Park Hill High School, and Park Hill South High School.
The first program started at Park Hill about two years ago when a parent-run non-profit called Northland Miracles reached out to the school, according to Jill Hazell, school social worker for Park Hill South High School and Lakeview Middle School.
Although the school doesn’t keep statistics on how many students use the pantries, Hazell said there are at least 20 in each school. As with Winnetonka’s pantry, there aren’t strict eligibility requirements to use the Park Hill district’s pantries.
“We have a pretty good grasp on which students are qualified for free and reduced lunch, but we wouldn’t turn a student away,” Hazell said. “If they ask for the food, and they need it, we’re going to give it to them.”
Students don’t necessarily come by the pantry on a regular basis, but they might stop by to pick up extra food for the weekend or if they didn’t get breakfast that morning.
The Park Hill pantries stock everything from pasta and instant mashed potatoes to canned vegetables, beans, and soup. They also have more snack-appropriate items — such as instant oatmeal, granola bars, crackers, applesauce and fruit cups, and peanut butter.
Northland Miracles helps stock the pantries, but student groups also conduct occasional food drives to help.
The response to the pantries has been good, and Hazell said the schools are happy to help.
“There is a need in our school district to help support our students,” she said.