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4:08 PM Fri, Sept. 21st

Hungry Kids program: Backpacks full of food help needy in PV

Hungry children in the Humboldt Unified School District soon will have something to eat on weekends, thanks to a community effort of volunteers, St. Mary's and Yavapai Food banks, and the school district.

Mountain View and Lake Valley Elementary schools will pilot the Hungry Kids program, which is still in the planning stage. The program already exists in the Prescott Unified School District, where more than 50 children take home food for six weekend meals every Friday.

HUSD and PUSD superintendents Paul Stanton, Dave Smucker and the corresponding food and nutrition directors of each district met Jan. 12 with Ron Barnes, founder of Prescott Area Leadership, and Eric Wolverton, director of St. Mary's Food Bank in Flagstaff, by phone.

Wolverton made it clear that he wants to help set up the program for HUSD.

"We want to make sure if we're going to start a program, we never want it to stop," he said. "It's a community endeavor."

Hungry Kids in Flagstaff

The Flagstaff program works within the school district to identify children who may not have food during the weekend. They often get free or reduced-cost meals at school during the week, but the family doesn't have the resources to feed the children meals Saturday and Sunday.

The program discreetly provides backpacks with two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners to students Friday afternoons. The meals are free to students, but cost about $8 each, Wolverton said, which includes labor to bag the food and transport the individual bags to each school.

At PUSD, Hungry Kids meals cost about $5.50 for each child each weekend, or $209 per child per year, Barnes said. Volunteers and district kitchen staff work in teams providing the labor to slice up produce and pack the bags. They started with 15 identified children and now serve 76. Barnes said they have enough volunteers to rotate teams once every seven weeks.

Extending the program

Finding volunteers is not an issue, he said. Raising money to pay for the core menu items that go into each bag is the difficult part. He has helped raise enough money in Prescott to feed PUSD students for the rest of the year.

Now Barnes is seeking donations from the Prescott Valley community to start the Hungry Kids project in PV.

"Your kids are our kids," Barnes told Stanton. "I feel responsible for all of them."

The food bags benefit only the child or children; they are not designed to feed an entire family.

How it works

The St. Mary's Food Bank delivers a truckload of food to the Yavapai Food Bank, which is a redistribution point for about 30 agencies, said YFB Director Ann Wilson.

"One of the biggest problems is who is going to pick up the food, where to put it, and how to distribute the bags," Wilson said. "We don't have a lot of extra space here."

HUSD Food and Nutrition Director Rick Littel will explore delivery points, bagging areas and finding volunteers.

If the food bank is out of core menu items, the school district would need to purchase those and could do so through the food bank at a reduced cost. PUSD Food Service Director Bob Toomer said he also watches local grocery sales and picks up canned food at good prices.

"I try to maintain the same food in each bag. We get what we get," Toomer said.

Wolverton said supermarkets regularly donate fresh vegetables and fruit. That could mean potatoes, onions or eggplant, depending on what is available. Right now, gleaners in the Valley are providing a lot of citrus.

Hungry kids on the rise

Littel said he's seen a rise in the number of HUSD families qualifying for free and reduced-cost school meals, from 50 percent to 60 percent this year. The Chino Valley Unified School District also is up from 60 percent to 75 percent, Barnes said. In Prescott, the number has increased from 34 percent to 38 percent.

"When you go to the school and see those kids carrying a bag of food home, it makes it all worthwhile," Smucker said.