Feed Branford Kids is a volunteer-run organization working to provide weekend meals for Branford elementary school children at risk of hunger.
Feed Branford Kids was founded by Johanne Pantani, who was inspired to address this problem after seeing a mobile food distribution program on a mission trip several years ago.
“I saw a bus, called the ‘Lunchbox,’ that went to playgrounds during the summer and delivered meals.” Pantani said. “I thought that was a great idea. My kids didn’t think it was, because in case I died they didn’t want to drive the bus,” she noted, laughing.
Pantani knew of the Kids’ BackPack program offered by the Connecticut Food Bank in several communities, including in Branford at the town’s middle school. She gathered friends, raised funds, including $1,000 seed money from her children, and set about building a program to serve more children in Branford.
“I just kept working on it with three other people, and meeting with the Board of Education. It took them a long time, but they finally approved it. We were then able to get funds from different people. 2014 is when we officially started, and that was for seven kids. Now we serve 204 kids in five elementary schools.” Pantani says they hope to increase capacity to serve more children and to reach into the town’s middle and high schools. The program currently operates in a partnership with the Branford Food Pantry.
Pantani says their “biggest goal is to feed the kids. Most of us here graduated from high school together. We’re just a bunch of old ladies and old men that are doing something that makes us feel good. On a rainy Saturday morning, you think ‘Oh, what a nasty old day,’ and [then] you think there’s some kid who’s having a hot bowl of soup for lunch. That’s a great feeling.”
The program orders staples, including juice, canned tuna and chicken and shelf stable milk from the Connecticut Food Bank. Volunteers John and Barbara Clark hunt for sales in a variety of stores, scouring the Sunday paper for sales and coupons and collecting items all week. This close-knit group of retiree volunteers takes nutrition seriously; John said he’s looked at more boxes for nutritional value “now than in my entire life.”
The group picks up orders often weighing more than 1,000 pounds from the Connecticut Food Bank and transports it to a donated facility where they store and pack food bags for children. The bags offer child-friendly, easy to prepare foods. They then deliver them to their five partner elementary schools to send kids home with meals for the weekend. The focus is not just nutrition, but variety and “a little something extra.”
“We make sure there are no peanut products at all, even food that’s processed where there’s peanuts,” Pantani said. “[The children] get two lunches, two breakfasts, two milks, two juices, raisins, usually a fruit or applesauce, snacks, some ramen noodles as an extra for the family, popcorn and protein,” she said. “We try to hit all the food groups, but it’s hard when you’re on a budget. Sourcing depends on price. Barbara [Clark] makes sure the kids don’t have the same thing every week. She’ll change the menu for this coming week. Instead of getting chicken, they’ll get tuna fish, and so on.”
John Clark said the foods from Connecticut Food Bank round out the packages and ensure that there is consistency and shelf life. “There are certain things that always come from the Food Bank like juice, milk, etc. because it has an extended life.” Barbara Clark noted that Connecticut Food Bank Mobile Distribution Coordinator Huwerl Thornton helps guide the group’s product orders with a focus on “what’s healthy and not healthy,” for inclusion in the product mix. “I know they have their standards” for nutrition, she added.
John Clark said that, like the Connecticut Food Bank program, they do not directly work with children receiving the meal packages. “We just bring the food in, and that’s the end of it as far as we’re concerned. But we’ve been [delivering] food [to] schools, and have a little kid come up and says, ‘I get one of those – oh boy oh boy they’re good,’ and [another] little kid comes up and he says, ‘I get one of those, too, we don’t have much food at all at our house.’”
Pantani added that she heard from the woman at one school who places the bags in children’s lockers that a young girl walking through the hall said, “I know who are… You’re the food fairy.”
The program enjoys strong community support from volunteers and donors. They have an annual golf tournament and have received financial donations from individuals and businesses, as well as support from community organizations. They also work with local stores to organize food drives and to collect surplus foods if possible. Pantani notes that, as they have grown, they have begun to look for a larger space, but are hoping to continue in a donated facility to help keep their funds going toward food.
Asked to share a little-known fact about their work, Barbara Clark said, “We’ve been called the ‘Sexy Senior Packers.’” Pantani jumped in to clarify. “We are the Sexy Senior Packers,” she said. “Have you seen us? We were on Channel 8 News, with Brian [Spyros]. It was so funny. He came down here and we were pegged as the Sexy Seniors. It was cute. And after that, we got donations. We’d walk in the store, and I was the one that did the talking, and people would say, “I saw you somewhere… I know! I saw you this morning when I was lying in bed watching TV!”
Touching on donations reminded Barbara Clark, “We also really have to thank the community for their donations and for being so generous, and for recognizing the need. That’s really important.”