Schenectady County

Schenectady backpack meals program to expand

Enrolled students appear to perform better
Michael Castellana, president and CEO of SEFCU, holds up a backpack Tuesday.
Michael Castellana, president and CEO of SEFCU, holds up a backpack Tuesday.

SCHENECTADY — Surrounded by cases full of apple juice boxes, canned spaghetti rings and diced peach fruit cups, local dignitaries and elected officials announced a $50,000 boost in state funding for a program to feed hungry school children.

The infusion will allow the Weekend Backpack Partnership program to expand beyond the city school district to other districts in Schenectady County, officials said Tuesday. The program serves about 1,000 students in the Schenectady City School District by providing them with backpacks of food to take home for the weekend, when free school breakfast and lunch options aren’t available.

Thousands of kids in the county deal with food insecurity, meaning they don’t get proper meals between the time they leave school on Friday and the time they return Monday morning. The district provides free breakfasts and lunches to qualified students during the week.

“We started the partnership a few years ago, and almost as soon as we started down that path, we began hearing from other schools,” said Robert Carreau, executive director of the Schenectady Foundation, which is among a coalition of local groups, including the City Mission, the Golub Corp., SEFCU and MVP Health Care, that organize the backpacks program.

Data collected from the first few years of the program in Schenectady shows that participating students had a 6 percent higher attendance rate than those not in the program. In addition, 88 percent of participating students improved or maintained their academic performance from year to year, compared with 84 percent for those not participating.

The next step, Carreau said, is to reach out to other districts throughout the county to determine what their needs are and see which schools are prepared to enroll in the program.

The expectation is to expand the program by the start of the 2017-18 school year, Carreau said, though the exact number of students impacted by the additional funding will not be determined for some time.

In some cases, the backpacks are used to feed a student’s family members, too, Carreau said. To ensure each student is getting proper nutrition, schools survey children and their parents, he said. This allows administrators to ensure each child gets properly fed. It also allows the school to collect feedback and learn what types of foods students like.

The city program benefits students at each of the district’s elementary schools. This allows students to continue utilizing the service without interruption, even if they move from school to school, Carreau said.

Whether the program expands only to county elementary schools or to high schools will depend on each district’s needs, Carreau said.

Program leaders stressed that food insecurity is not just an urban problem; it affects rural and suburban districts, as well.

Diane Blinn, a social worker in the Mohonasen Central School District in Rotterdam, said she sees kids come to her office regularly who require a snack, or sometimes a full meal, in order to maintain their energy and focus. These students just aren’t getting enough food at home.

Next school year, Blinn said, the high school plans to have a food pantry to help address the issue.

Officials said they’re hopeful the additional state funding will raise awareness about the program, which could lead to an increase in donations. It costs $6 to feed a child for one week and about $200 to feed a child for a full year.

Michael Castellana, president and CEO of SEFCU, said he’s proud the company is a sponsor of the program. However, he expressed hope that one day kids can take home backpacks full of toys for the weekend, or books to read, instead.

In the meantime, he said, the food is necessary.

“We’ll celebrate when we’re not feeding kids out a backpack,” Castellana said. “We’ll know we’re successful when we don’t have to do this anymore.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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