by Bernie Beaudreau
Claudette Glassman has been the school nurse at Savin Rock Community School in West Haven for 19 years. I stopped to speak with her on Friday as we were in the school for a taping with a team from NBC’s Today Show promoting the Kids’ Backpack program for Feeding America. The Connecticut Food Bank Kids’ Backpack program provides a packet of two breakfasts, two lunches and two snacks every Friday for 3,300 school children in 111 schools in 22 school districts across the state.
“The need has grown over the years,” Claudette told me. She was talking about the growing number of school kids in need of food assistance. Claudette is part of a staff team that identifies children at risk for hunger on the weekends. The packs are discreetly given to the children on Friday afternoons before they go home for the weekend. As a key point of contact for kids with health issues or other problems, Claudette has a strong knowledge of the children and their home situations. She told me that she keeps a clothes closet with donated items or basics that she purchases using her own money to help children when she knows their families are unable to provide something like a winter coat or when a child might need a change of clothes during the day that families may not have resources to provide.
She told me of a little girl that came by asking for her backpack a day early because she knew that there would be little to eat at home that evening. The little girl is here from Holland with her mother. They’re undocumented and the mom had been unable to find work until recently. But that work doesn’t pay enough to support the family. Claudette says that, while the Kids’ Backpack program has been very helpful for 40 of the school’s children, it could easily double in scope and not fully serve all children in need.
Nutrition affects healthy development and educational outcomes for children. Conversations with Claudette Glassman and teachers at the school bear this out. Shana Limauro a second grade teacher at the school, told us that she can tell by their behavior and energy levels when her students haven’t had food in the morning before coming to school. She also noted that, by 2:00PM, her young students are starting to run out of steam and they rely on the fuel snack time provides to help them work well up to dismissal time at 3:20PM. Imagine what a day without breakfast, perhaps a substandard lunch and no snack might feel like for a young, growing child. It certainly wouldn’t make learning easy.
Savin Rock School has just under 500 students, 79 percent of whom are from low-income families, making them eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The school provides breakfast and lunch for these children, who often eat significantly less food or less nutritious food at home on the weekends. While the Connecticut Food Bank investment in the Kids’ BackPack program is considerable, that investment does not meet even half of the need at most participating schools.
We surveyed those schools in June and the responses indicated that the program is widely appreciated and most schools wish they had a larger allocation of backpacks because there are so many more kids in need.
As the Today Show team interviewed seven students receiving the weekly Kids’ Backpack support, we heard some of their heart-wrenching experiences with hunger at home. One fifth grade girl
said, “I feel really sad when mom tells us she doesn’t have enough money to get groceries. Once we had some peanut butter but didn’t have bread to make a sandwich.” The same child talked about fishing coins out of ponds in parks and scavenging items left behind by people fishing in those ponds. That’s not how a child should have to find food.
We were all shaken hearing the difficult stories from these children, and gained a stronger appreciation of the importance of the Kids’ Backpack program for the kids and their families. It is not a complete solution by any stretch. But it helps children in a very direct and significant way.
But we must find ways to expand our reach and potentially offer more help to whole families. At the Connecticut Food Bank, we are looking at ways to go from Kids’ BackPack to Kids’ BackPack “Plus.” That “Plus” will be a more robust intervention to connect the families of children receiving a backpack with our broader network of food pantries and our Mobile Pantry, as well as other resources to lift them out of poverty and food insecurity. The idea is that these families, connected to more help and tools, will no longer need a backpack for their child, allowing that food to be passed on to the next child on the waiting list. So instead of only 40 kids at Savin Rock School getting the help of the backpack program, potentially 80 or 120 could receive this help in a given school year.
When you get close to the reality of child hunger in our communities and hear children talk about their hunger and how they worry for their families, it is hard to not feel anger that there is such deep poverty with so many families and children are deprived of our most basic need. It makes you more determined than ever to find a solution. Our Kids’ Backpack program is part of that solution, but we should not feel satisfied that we’ve done enough until school nurses like Claudette Glassman can smile and say hungry children in their school used to be a big problem, but not anymore.