2018-10-11 / Front Page

Pell Food Program Seeks Support

By Brooke Constance White

When Pell Elementary School’s student food program needed a financial boost last year, the Newport community rallied to raise the remaining $10,000 needed to jumpstart the project.

This year, the decade-old Backpack Feeding Program, which annually provides 100 Pell students each Friday with nutritious food for the weekends from November to June, is again facing a deficit, albeit about half of last year’s shortage. They’re hoping Newport residents will once more lend a hand.

Each fall, program organizer Newport Family and Child Opportunity Zone (NFCOZ), a subsidiary of the nonprofit East Bay Community Action Program (EBCAP), must piece together a budget from various sources. Along with receiving funds this year from Singing Out Against Hunger, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the John Clark Trust Fund, the program was selected as the “fund-a-need” portion of EBCAP’s 15th Annual Seaside Gala.

“That brought in about $9,000 which far surpassed what we expected,” said Christine Arouth, director of NFCOZ. “But we’re still about $5,000 short of the $22,489 budget we need to be fully funded this year.”

Working with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, NFCOZ’s partner in the program, Arouth said this budget will allow them to run a 32-week program for 100 kids each week at approximately $7.03 per bag.

“I’m placing the order with the food bank shortly but we’re taking a bit of a risk because we’re not fully funded,” she said. “I’m planning to send out letters to donors [from last year]. Many of them said to reach out again this year if we needed help with funding.”

If NFCOZ receives additional funds beyond their budget for this year, Arouth said they will have some wiggle room if more than 100 students need weekend food. A surplus could also be used to extend the program into the summer or to begin building next year’s budget. Leftover funds last year allowed the program, which was forced to start in January 2018 instead of November 2017, to continue into the summer months.

With more than 60 percent of Pell’s 900-plus students eligible for the school’s federally funded free or reduced cost lunch program and numerous students participating in the universal breakfast program, Arouth says it’s imperative that these children get food on weekends.

“Most of the time, it's not a kid coming to a teacher saying they’re hungry,” she said. “It’s often a child who’s chronically late or says they have a stomach ache every day.”

During the 2017-2018 school year, the Backpack Feeding Program served 100 students each week and distributed 1,973 food bags to 187 students, from January to June, a total of 9,865 meals. Additionally, 453 food bags were distributed over the summer to 129 students in five distributions.

At the beginning of each school year, teachers work to identify students who are exhibiting signs of food insecurity in order to refer them to the Backpack Feeding Program.

And while they would like to start the program earlier in the school year, teachers often need a few weeks to identify which students need food on weekends.

Susan Moore, a fourth-grade teacher at Pell said she noticed that some students weren’t looking forward to going home on Fridays. She was concerned that they knew there wouldn’t be much to eat in the house.

“These same students seemed much happier as they left with their backpacks full of food,” Moore said.

Colleen Crotteau, a special education coordinator at Pell, said she overheard a student talking about receiving food through the backpack program at Pell last summer.

“I heard a student say to their teacher, ‘Thank God I got this food. I really needed it,’” Crotteau said. “It makes such a difference for kids as it provides them with easy-to-prepare nutritious meals and snacks.”

Arouth says an integral part of the program is building relationships so teachers and program organizers know which families are dealing with food insecurity. Many parents in this kind of situation, she said, are worried they’ll be judged or that the state will visit their home if they’re having difficulty feeding their children.

“It’s about building trust so they know that this is to help them, not to judge them but to make it just a little bit easier,” Arouth said, adding that the food is placed in students’ lockers so they can slip it into their backpacks discreetly. “We also include materials in the food bag about SNAP programs or food kitchens or other resources in the community that might be of help to these families.”

Judith Webb, a member of the Newport School District’s Health and Wellness Committee, aims to help Arouth and NFCOZ feel financially secure enough to look more than a few months ahead. Although she understands it can be hard for teachers to identify food insecurity in new students, Webb said she’d like the program to start earlier for the students who have been identified and referred to the program in years past. She also believes Newporters can help.

“Once we understand that food is a basic need, I find it impossible to believe a community would sit by and be aware of this without helping,” Webb said. “We must ensure that food is available to these children. I know the community will step up. Hunger-free weekends: let’s make that a reality.”

Online donations to support the Backpack Feeding Program can be made at https://app.etapestry.com/onlineforms/EastBayCommunityActionProgram/Back.... Donations may also be made payable to EBCAP and mailed to the attention of Christine Arouth, NFCOZ Director, Pell Elementary School, 35 Dexter St., Newport, 02840.

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