Volunteers work to feed needy students on weekends
Every Friday, a group of volunteers gathers at the Prescott Unified School District food service building to fill bags with servings of food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for Saturday and Sunday.
Volunteers then distribute the food bags to elementary and middle schools, where school officials slip them into backpacks for students to take home.
For the 53 (as of Nov. 3) PUSD students receiving the food, this could be the only food they have to eat all weekend.
Through the efforts of PUSD food service director Bob Toomer, who volunteers his own time, the cost of providing a weekend's worth of food is $5.50 per child.
The "Hungry Kids" program was the result of a story Prescott Area Leadership founder Ron Barnes heard, and that became the theme of the Oct. 1 Central Yavapai Institute 2010.
Barnes has looked into the issue of poverty in Yavapai County for the past several years. As part of his study, he learned that a group of mothers in Mesa were packing backpacks with food for children to eat during the weekend and he "wondered why no one was doing that here."
Barnes' instincts told him there were local children going hungry on the weekends and the problem "was not going away."
As he began to hear accounts about hungry children, one in particular stuck with him. It was about a young boy who, after arriving at school, kept to himself and would not talk to anyone. After about an hour, his teacher was able to find out that the boy had only a slice of bread to eat for breakfast, a slice for lunch and a slice for dinner on both Saturday and Sunday.
Barnes quickly contacted his friends and the "Hungry Kids" program was off and running.
At first, Barnes and his volunteers were buying food in bulk and filling the bags in volunteer Sydney Mitchell's kitchen.
With the support of PUSD Superintendent Dave Smucker, and Toomer, the volunteers moved out of Mitchell's kitchen and into the food service building.
Toomer also took over the task of getting the food. Through careful shopping, he can provide the meals for $5.50 per student.
"(The volunteers) raise the money and I buy the food," Toomer said. "Ron Barnes approached me and asked if I would be willing to help."
And help he does. Through his efforts, the children receive not only canned goods and staples, but also fruits and vegetables. "I feel strongly that children need fruits and vegetables," Toomer said. "Each bag includes fruit, vegetables, an entrée and milk."
Mitchell volunteered with the program after hearing Barnes talk about "the great need. This program is totally run and paid for through volunteers. It is not costing the school anything," he said.
As the number of volunteers increased, Mitchell and her group now only have to work once every seven weeks.
"This is an effort by volunteers to make sure that no child is hungry during the weekend," Mitchell said.
Barnes explained that school social workers and nurses, as well as teachers, help identify the students in need of food.
In the beginning, Barnes used data showing 80 percent of the students at Miller Valley Elementary School were on the federal free or reduced lunch program. Of those, he said the school's social worker identified 15 kids who probably had nothing to eat on the weekends.
Officials at Prescott Mile High Middle School asked Barnes if he could help some of their children, and the program now includes all PUSD schools except Taylor Hicks and Prescott High School.
To get the program off the ground, Barnes called his contacts and asked them if they could pay for one child. He said it cost $200 to pay for meals one child for the school year.
He explained that the PUSD Education Foundation collects and manages the donations for the Hungry Kids program.
Barnes' concern is not just for children on the weekends during the school year. He and his volunteers are already putting together a plan to bring food to children during the summer.
"The federal government pays for the summer food program so it is not costing anything. The problem is getting the children to the schools that offer the program. We plan to take the food to where kids can gather," Barnes explained.
"I feel very strongly that the greatest failure in life is to fail the children," Barnes said.
Anyone interested in helping the program can send a donation to the PUSD Education Foundation, Hungry Kids, 146 S. Granite St., Prescott, AZ 86303.