Originally Published: August 21, 2011 10:17 p.m.
As a group of 10 volunteers packed nutritious meals on Friday morning for needy children to eat over the weekend in the Prescott Unified School District's food service kitchen, Ron Barnes, founder of the Hungry Kids Project, said the number of children they serve is growing.
"A year ago, we started the school year serving 15 children and this year we served 37 children the first week," Barnes said. "We were at 50 last week, we're at 60 this week. It will just keep escalating as the teachers and the nurses identify the kids who are hungry, who have no food, or little food for the weekend. That's who we're feeding."
By the end of last school year, 95 children were served by the program and Barnes said the program expects to serve many more children by the end of this school year.
Volunteers packed three separate bags for the children with two breakfasts, two lunches, and two dinners that the children receive at the end of school on Friday to take home to eat over the weekend, said Shari Sterling, federal programs director and grant writer for PUSD. Sterling noted 39 percent of students in the district qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.
The amount of food the children carry home would fill a child's backpack many times over, and "little kids can't lift it," Barnes said so the children often get help to carry the food home.
"Many parents help the children carry their food home, but they've also got neighbor kids who are older so they get it done," Barnes said. "Last year, I asked the nurses, who are the key people, 'Do you want us to cut back on the food?' and they said 'No, don't cut back. They need everything you pack.'"
On Friday, Dave Smucker, PUSD superintendent, thanked Steve Bracety, a Yavapai County Community Foundation Board member for a $9,150 grant to help fund the Hungry Kids Project.
"Essentially, there is a huge need to feed kids," Bracety said. "We wanted to put the dollars where they are needed the most, for the kids. We invest in our future, our children."
Humboldt School District has a Hungry Kids Project that serves two of their elementary schools as well.
Smucker thanked the volunteers for all their help as they packed the dinner bag with two milks, two juices, one pear, one corn, one hamburger, one french fries, one pack of animal crackers, one cheese stick, and one popcorn chicken.
"You've got to put in something for the kids that's an 'oh boy,'" said Barnes, noting that the animal crackers were that this week. Last week it was fruit bars.
It takes the volunteers only about an hour to pack all the meals for the children.
"Most of us are in a small group together at The Heights church," Jeannie Dew said. "We went to the presentation Prescott Area Leadership did with the county on hunger last year and decided that we wanted to get involved."
"Two years ago, on the Saturday before school starts the Center for Compassion and Justice had 300 families line up for free backpacks, free school supplies, and free vouchers for shoes," Barnes said. "Last year they had 600 families and this year 798 families. It's going up. That's an indication that our problem is not getting better. That told us we're going to have more kids."
When asked about any plans to branch out, Barnes talked about two community gardens in Prescott and Prescott Valley that supply fresh vegetables to local food banks and Meals on Wheels.
"We also started two community gardens," Barnes said. "The one by the Y, which last year put out a ton of food for hungry people. And this year, there's another garden in Prescott Valley right behind the Albertson's that's an acre large and they are feeding every two days now they're harvesting and the food goes to hungry families at the food bank."