Into the Great Wide Open: Reaching Hungry Families in Rural Areas
If there is one day of the week that people look forward to the most, it’s Friday. For some, Friday means payday. For others, Friday signifies the end of a long work week and time to relax with family and friends. For the students and parents at St. James Northside Elementary School, a public school in rural southwestern Minnesota, Friday is the best day of the week because Friday means food.
“I love Fridays so much because that’s the day my food comes,” said Jonathan*, a first-grader.
"You can't know how important it is for my family to get this little bit extra each Friday. With five kids it helps our budget go just a bit further when those backpacks come home,” said Angela*, a parent of a kindergartener.
The food they’re referring to comes in the form of backpacks distributed once a week to families in the St. James school district. All students who receive free or reduced-cost meals—at Northside Elementary, that’s 62 percent of students—are able to visit the food pantry to collect their backpack at the end of the day on Friday.
The school district began the backpack program in 2014, and just recently added food pantries to its three elementary schools to allow families to shop for food and other necessities. The need is great in the mostly rural district where many families work on farms and struggle to make ends meet.
“We distributed 7,108 backpacks during the 2017-18 school year,” said Abby Grove, food service director for the district. “This is an increase from 3,746 backpacks sent home the previous year.”
After the success of the backpack program and attending a Food Access Summit in Duluth, Grove said she dreamed about launching food pantries in the school district.
“I saw the gap and the need in St. James,” she said. “There were children who didn't come to school some days because they didn’t want to be made fun of for wearing the same clothes. They not only needed food, they needed necessities like laundry soap and toothbrushes.”
The district conducted a confidential survey and found that beyond food, what kids needed the most is something many of us take for granted: socks.
“We found that kids really need socks in addition to toiletry items such as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, so we’re hoping to increase the availability of these items in our food pantries,” Grove said.
While Grove helped launched the program, she doesn’t work for the school district. She works for Taher, Inc., a food service management company providing K-12 school lunch management, campus dining, senior dining, business dining and catering. The company is committed to helping end hunger in the communities it serves through meal programs, food rescue and mobile food units that distribute free meals to kids over the summer.
Grove connected with Second Harvest Heartland’s Agency Relations Account Specialist Charlene Graff when she was researching low-cost food options. Graff said these types of programs are a great way to get food to the families that need it most.
“In Greater Minnesota, schools serve as the hub of the community,” Graff said. “Because of vast open spaces, the school is a great place to reach families who might need access to additional nutritious meals and snacks.”
To make sure kids aren’t missing the most important meal of the day, the district has been experimenting with a Second Chance Breakfast program in which students are given the opportunity to grab breakfast on their way to class and eat it in the classroom. The breakfast initiative is part of Second Harvest Heartland’s Food + You program.
So far, Grove said the breakfast program seems to be making a difference.
“We know that kids need food to focus on their schoolwork,” Grove said. “It’s just a basic need for their success. We want to help get and keep them on the right track.”
For each person locally who is hungry, there are ten people who can help. Hunger is a solvable problem. Start with a few dollars, a few pounds of food or a few hours volunteering. That's all it takes to put your desire to make a difference to work. Learn about all the ways you can make a difference in the lives of hungry children and families.
*Names have been changed.