Backpack program helps schoolchildren with their holiday food supply
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Dec 13, 2013 | 4297 views |  0 comments | 49 49 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Before teachers at Randolph Park Elementary School in Anniston leave for the holidays, they'll quietly assemble 50 of their students and hand them gallon bags of food.

It's one way, Principal Teresia Hall said, to make sure those students have enough to eat over the holidays.

"We tell them not to use it all up in one day," Hall said. "The kids at Randolph Park will be well taken care of."

While many people associate the holidays with feasting and a few extra pounds, state school officials worry that many Alabama schoolchildren will have a very different problem. Fifty-nine percent of children in Alabama schools, a total of 436,000 kids, are eligible for free or reduced-rate school lunches because their parents live below or near the poverty line.

Teachers have long fretted about what happens to those children when school lets out. In recent years, schools have worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set up free lunch programs that run through the summer, providing students with at least a couple of good meals per day. Alabama's summer lunch programs served 1.6 million meals in the last summer alone, state officials say.

But there's no similar program to cover the Christmas holiday, and that worries the state's highest school official.

"Our biggest concern is that our students are going to leave for two weeks and be hungry,” said Tommy Bice, superintendent of the Alabama Department of Education, in a school board meeting Thursday.

Bice praised the state's summer lunch program, one of the fastest-growing in the nation. State officials say the program served just 1.3 million meals in the summer of 2012, far fewer than were served in 2013. School officials say the number of meals grew because the program expanded into 11 new school systems, including Calhoun County's. The demand was always there, school officials say.

"We invite any child to go there," said education department spokeswoman Malissa Valdes-Hubert. "They don't have to go to public school. We don't check IDs."

That demand doesn't disappear over the holidays, but school lunchrooms won't be open to meet it.

"It is a concern," said Ashley Alexander, coordinator of the the child nutrition program in Anniston City Schools. "We have a very high rate of free and reduced lunch."

Asked what schools are doing to meet the need over the holidays, Bice said nonprofits and volunteers were trying to take up the slack. Some organizations, he said, sponsor "weekend backpack programs" that send some kids home for the weekend with a backpack full of food.

"Those backpacks will be super-packed when they go home for Christmas," Bice said.

The Birmingham-based Community Food Bank of Central Alabama has one of those programs. Director Amanda Storey said the project uses donations from corporate and individual sponsors to buy easy-to-prepare, non-perishable food items. Volunteers pack them into gallon-sized plastic bags. Teachers discreetly slip them into kids' backpacks before they leave on Fridays.

"We get calls from counselors almost weekly who have contact with children who are coming to school very hungry, and showing signs of serious hunger," Storey said.

They aren't hard to spot, Storey said. Hungry students might rush the lunch line, or seem sad or lethargic at school.

To help those students make it through the holidays, Storey said, the program will send an extra bag of food home with students when they leave for the Christmas break. That includes the 50 students at Randolph Park, where the food bank began a backpack project in September. It is the only project of its kind in Calhoun County.

Hall, the Randolph Park principal, said she can see the difference the program has made for the kids who are taking the food home.

"You can tell the difference because when they get here, they're ready to start working," she said.

The food bank accepts both individual and corporate donations through its website, www.feedingal.org, Storey said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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