More than half of the students who attend Helen M. Knight Elementary School qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. For some of those students, the breakfast and lunch they receive at school may be the only meals they can depend on getting every day. But the staff at HMK is hoping to change that through the Food for Kids Backpack Program.
First-grade teacher Sarah Henderson came up with the idea after seeing some of her students regularly coming to school hungry.
“I would notice kids taking food out of the garbage in the lunchroom,” she said. “Sometimes they’d ask for food off other kids’ trays, and then hoard it. I just thought, that’s not OK.”
At first, Henderson spent her own money to provide snacks for her students every day.
“I couldn’t sustain it on my own,” she said. “And I knew there were other students in need. I wanted to reach more kids.”
That’s when Henderson came up with the idea of an in-school food bank.
“It’s a great way to get kids helping kids,” she said.
Henderson’s fellow first-grade teachers have embraced the project, and it has become the community service project for the first-grade block.
“I saw a need, and no one else was doing anything about it,” Henderson said.
The program will, in essence, be an ongoing food drive. Every Friday, volunteers from the school’s Title 1 program and the Moab Rotary Club take the donations that have been received throughout the week and divvy them up into red grocery bags. Those bags are then delivered to the classrooms, where teachers put them in the backpacks of the students. The goal is to send enough food home with each student to provide meals for the entire week.
“We feed kids breakfast and lunch, but we can’t feed them dinner,” HMK Principal Taryn Kay said. “This is an effort to make sure that kids have three meals a day.”
With many parents working two or three jobs, Kay said some students might not have anyone at home to fix them dinner at night.
“Their refrigerators might be empty or broken,” she said. “Or they might not have a refrigerator.”
Henderson said that’s why the group is looking for food that is easy to prepare — so that students can make it themselves if necessary. The school has asked for donations of foods such as soups, microwaveable macaroni and cheese, canned chili and fruit cups. Henderson said fresh fruit and vegetables that travel well, such as clementine oranges and baby carrots, will also be gladly accepted.
Kay said she hopes that the program will eventually be able to expand to offer more fresh options.
“We know that canned food isn’t the healthiest,” she said. “But it’s better than nothing.”
In addition to food, Kay said the group is also accepting can openers to send home with students who might not have access to one. Cash donations are also being accepted.
Currently, Kay said students are only referred to the program when a staff member feels they would benefit from it.
“There’s no application process or anything,” Kay said.
“We have about 60 kids that have been identified so far,” Henderson said, adding that she’s received referrals from teachers as well as the BEACON Afterschool Program. “I’m sure the number will go up as the program gets more established.”
The names of students who have been referred to the program are kept anonymous, to ensure their privacy.
“The main thing is maintaining their integrity,” Henderson said.
Overall, Kay said she hopes the program will be helpful for the students who receive the food.
“Our intent isn’t to offend anyone,” she said. “We don’t want parents to feel bad. We just want to make sure that kids have food.”
Because the program is just getting started, Henderson said school officials are still figuring things out.
“We’ll see how it works,” she said. “There will be bumps in the road.”
“We’re kind of building the plane as we fly it,” Kay agreed.
Kay said the school does not want the program to compete with the Grand County Food Bank. Rather, she hopes HMK can supplement the work that the food bank already does.
“When you’re shopping, what we’d like people to do is just buy an extra can of soup or an extra box of macaroni and cheese,” Kay said, adding that families should only donate if they have the ability to do so.
“Often times those who are the neediest are the most giving, because they’ve been there. They know what it’s like,” she said. “But we don’t want them to send their last can of soup.”
Food and monetary donations can be dropped off at HMK during school hours. Anyone interested in volunteering time to help fill the backpacks can contact Sarah Henderson at HMK, 435-719-4827, or by email at: [email protected]