When third-grade teacher Jessica Dineen joined in a simulated poverty exercise at Radez Elementary School last fall, she discovered how distressing it could be struggling to feed your family while trying to pay rent and utility bills.
The exercise put teachers and staff members in roles as families living in poverty, facing the day-to-day reality of choosing between buying groceries or paying bills.
And that motivated Dineen to urge colleagues to support a backpack program, aimed at providing food on weekends for Radez children whose families are coping with having to make those choices.
“The intent [of the exercise] was to increase awareness and sensitivity for families whose income isn’t sufficient to meet their living expenses and causing them an abundance of stress,” said Radez Principal Brett Barr.
Moreover, he said, it enabled the teachers and staff to realize the impact of poverty on their students, who may have difficulty with schoolwork because of hunger and lack of proper nutrition, among other stressful situations arising from poverty.
“It got us to realize that it might not be a conscious decision why kids aren’t doing their homework,” he said.
During a faculty and staff discussion about the simulated poverty exercise and its impact on the participants, Dineen suggested starting the school backpack program at Radez. She said she read about backpack programs on the Internet. The programs provide backpacks filled with food for families whose children receive either free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program yet may be struggling with hunger on weekends.
With donations and grants from a nonprofit organization, Dineen started a backpack project at Radez. The Cobleskill-Richmondville Teachers Association purchased the backpacks.
More than 40 Radez teachers and staff and a few retirees signed up to purchase on a rotating basis nutritious, nonperishable groceries for the weekend backpack project and were assigned as teams for each of the eight families of students selected by the school nurse and guidance counselor on the basis of need and qualification for the National School Lunch Program.
Each team also purchases a “charitable gift-giving card” for food from Price Chopper so that families can buy produce and meat as well.
Recently, a local resident crafted youth-sized quilts for each of the Radez students participating in the program. And the program has received cleaning supplies and toiletries donated by faculty and staff from other district schools for distribution to the families.
About 44 percent of the students within the Cobleskill-Richmondville School District qualify for free or reduced-fee lunch under the federally funded lunch program, Dineen said, adding: “The families were identified and contacted and asked if they wanted to be part of the project.”
In some cases, the families include siblings in other schools within the Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School district.
“The school nurse and guidance counselor got together to determine which families they thought might need support, such as families living in poverty, families where a father is out of seasonal work such as construction, a family in which an ill parent is dealing with medical bills,” said Dineen.
“In some cases, it might be their food stamps haven’t come yet and they’re struggling to pay for food since it may be the time of the month they have other payments that are due.
“We don’t ask anything from the families other than to support their child’s education, to ensure they get to school, work with them to the best of their ability helping them with assignments or reading at night.”
Across the United States, schools that have backpack programs report an increase in student attendance, more positive behavior, higher test scores, and improved reading skills, she said.
According to “Feeding America,” www.feedingamerica.org, children who qualify for the National School Lunch Program for free or reduced-price meals get nutritious meals at school during the week, but too often when they come to school Monday morning teachers find they’re “forced to compete against hunger for their attention.”
The Feeding America “BackPack Program” has been “helping children get nutritious and easy-to-prepare food they need over the course of the weekend.”
Dineen used a somewhat similar approach to planning Radez Elementary School’s backpack program.
A few mornings before school during the week, Dineen and her daughter Ireland, who’s a kindergartner, load the backpacks with food for the families for the weekend.
Cobleskill-Richmondville High School senior Cholette Fiore has been helping out with the task as a community service project for one of her courses.
Another Schoharie County school participates in a backpack program. For the last seven years, Schoharie Central Elementary School has been involved in the BackPack Program run by the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.
According to the food bank’s website (www.regionalfoodbank.net), the BackPack Program serves more than 1,000 students at 42 schools in 14 counties, including Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and Montgomery counties, and “is made possible by the generous support of many individuals and businesses.”
Christine Quandt, social worker at Schoharie Elementary School and coordinator for the school’s BackPack Program, said as many as 22 backpacks are sent home each weekend, serving a total of 42 children.
“Children are referred by various means,” she said. “Referral forms go out to teachers each fall with a checklist asking questions such as ‘Does the child claim to be hungry in school,’ ‘Does the child steal food or hoard food to take home?’ ”
She said many referrals come from teachers but “more and more parents are inquiring about the program. We’ve seen a spike in referrals this year.”
A fifth-grader asked Quandt if her family could get a backpack because her family’s food stamps were cut back. “Some families move in and out of the program depending on fluctuations in finances, such as losing a job or getting one.”
Quandt said the backpacks are “literally stuffed with food provided by the food bank, including bread, fresh produce, two breakfast items, two juice boxes, three simple entrees such as peanut butter and jelly, soup, and mac and cheese, some snacks and a milk card from Stewart’s.”
She said she especially likes it when the kids bring to school the juice boxes and treats they’re provided for their snacks. “I think it makes them feel like all the other kids.
“The parents are extremely appreciative of the backpacks. It’s a wonderful program and I’m happy and proud that Schoharie Elementary gets to participate.”
“We know that giving a backpack full of food for a weekend isn’t going to solve a family’s financial crisis or that it’s going to end the cycle of poverty,” said Barr. “Yet at the same time, we feel we can create a relationship with them, tell them that we care and that there are people here who support them.”