- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2016

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) - Elementary school students in need are beneficiaries of Food4Thought’s backpack program that sends food home with them every weekend.

And while that food goes to feed the rest of the family in many of those cases, that program doesn’t extend to the high school.

“Those kids don’t disappear when they get to high school, so where are they getting food on the weekends,” asked Hastings High teacher Carla Hedstrom.

At the high school, the staff estimates that at least one-tenth of the student population or about 100 students face food insecurities on a daily basis.

Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

Sixty percent of Hastings Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced lunches, meaning that there is a significant number of students and families with food insecurities and that includes students at the high school.

That’s why last spring a small group of teachers and staff started a food pantry at the high school as a way to help students in need.

The idea came when a few teachers were made aware of a similar program at Ralston High School. The Hastings High program was piloted during the last month of the school year.

The Hastings Tribune (https://bit.ly/2elYg0B ) reports that almost all of the food for the program comes from the Hastings Food Pantry, which provides the bags of food that go home with each of the students at the end of the week.

Food pantry volunteers pack the bags and have them ready for a high school staff member to pick up on the last day of each school week.

The focus has been mainly on breakfast items and food that is easily accessible to students like ramen noodles, canned soup and macaroni and cheese.

“Some of these kids are couch surfing,” said Amy Swayze, home/school liaison. “They’ve left home, moved to grandma’s house or are staying with friends. This is food they have no matter where they land.”

Then, there are other families that live in motels in the community and don’t have access to full kitchens. Through a survey of students, the staff was able to determine that most of the students do have access to some kitchen equipment and a refrigerator.

In addition to the bags of food from the Hastings Food Pantry, there is a small amount of food currently on hand in the high school‘s pantry to supplement the bagged food for students in serious need.

To this point, staff have been able to provide the students with meals like spaghetti with a meat sauce and boxed meals with a can of chicken.

In addition, over the summer students were provided with a list of places in the community to find meals. During extended weekend breaks, the students are given information on a mobile food pantry started recently by two local churches.

In addition to the food, students also have access to a wall of shelves in the pantry full of hygiene items from shampoo and toothpaste to rolls of toilet paper, feminine hygiene products and school supplies.

“With the laptops, they don’t need crayons and scissors but notebooks and pens go missing quite frequently,” said teacher Katie Funkey.

Students are able to take whatever they need from the hygiene shelves and the staff said the students aren’t greedy.

“I hear kids say, ‘I think I’ve got enough deodorant until next week,’ ” Funkey said. “They’re truly taking what they need. They’ll say, ‘I’ve got a toothbrush,’ and I’ll say, ‘When did you get a new one?’ They’ll say, ‘Oh I just got one when I went to the dentist.’

“They’re very thoughtful with what they’re taking,” she said. “They’re not loading up a bag.”

Some of the most popular items the students take include bandages and antiseptic cream, mouthwash, dish soap and hand soap.

Funkey said they’re trying to find a way to get face wash to treat acne that isn’t so expensive. That cost is oftentimes a problem for families and also for the food pantry’s tight budget.

“Katie and I went shopping and stuff is expensive,” Swayze said. “We bought 10 of everything but it adds up. And when you’re making minimum wage, you can’t live on that.”

Before the program went live, Hedstrom was able to get a large donation of hygiene products that had been collected by the First United Methodist Church for a hygiene drive. Funkey collected toothpaste and toothbrushes from four local dentist offices.

The Hastings Philanthropic Yoga Society, the CROP Walk and a Sunnyside grant all provided financial support to the new program.

The program is currently benefiting about 25 students each week, which the group feels is a good start but they know they can do more.

“We feel good about the numbers we’re serving now,” Funkey said. “We just know there is room for growth.”

Staff knows there are probably some students who are embarrassed about taking the handout while there are others who may not think they qualify for the program.

The staff has given students the option to meet with staff in a different time or location to pick up their food if they don’t want to be seen in the food pantry.

“I think a lot of the kids did the backpack program for a number of years so they don’t think too much about it,” Hedstrom said. “The concern we have is that 25 is not enough.”

In addition to providing the food and hygiene products, the teachers hope to start providing education about food costs and health benefits to the students. Additionally, a group of students at the high school is stocking and keeping an inventory of the products as part of a class.

Anyone interested in supporting the high school food pantry can drop off donations of nonperishable food items, hygiene products or sturdy reusable shopping bags to the high school office.

Monetary donations need to be made to the Hastings Public Schools Foundation with a note that it is earmarked for the pantry.


Information from: Hastings Tribune, https://www.hastingstribune.com

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