ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – An estimated nine million American children go to school hungry every day, and it can be a major impediment to a child's education Hunger can lead to behavior problems and chronic illnesses. For many kids, their school's lunchroom is their best - sometimes only - source of nutritional meals. Matt Hackworth reports on new efforts in America's heartland to extend that schoolhouse nourishment to the homes of hungry children.
Judith Clark is principal of Noyes Elementary School in St Joseph. She's spent more than 20 years in the classroom and says she can always spot the kids who are hungry.
"Students that don't have enough to eat don't have their mind on learning. They're either thinking about being hungry or they physically don't feel as well. They complain about stomach aches or they wanna go see the nurse. And you really can tell it. They're sleepy, they're lethargic, they just aren't interested in what's going on around them."
Kids go hungry at a higher rate here than in the rest of the state. More than half of the students in the St Joseph school district receive lunches at school for free, or at reduced prices. But Ms. Clark says those lunch programs only help kids during the week.
"Monday morning it was so quiet in the building and I never could figure it out. I always thought it was just because they were worn out from their weekend."
Childhood hunger, it turns out, takes its toll on the weekends, too. But now, around 30 of the needy students at Noyes go home each Friday with something special.
As classes end, the boys and girls are called to the school's cramped office and fidget in a single-file line. Each student here will carry two backpacks home one filled with schoolbooks from the classroom the other from the office, filled with food, from a local food bank.
Nicholas Saccaro is executive director for the America's Second Harvest food bank in St Joseph. He says the best way to fight childhood hunger is to work in the schools.
"Kids are a difficult group from a logistical standpoint to provide food to. Adults typically have some means of transportation from point a to point b to receive assistance, and with kids you have to find the places where they're already at, and then find a convenient way to distribute food there."
The Backpack Buddies Program provides that convenient opportunity, and St Joseph's Second Harvest was among the first few food banks in the country to send packs of food home each weekend with needy kids. Students return the backpacks on Monday, and they're refilled by food pantry volunteers and school workers.
As the students file through the office, they select one bag from several dozen in a colorful pile on the floor. Mr. Saccaro says the backpacks are all different to avoid creating a stigma by labeling children in need.
"How bout one of these pretty pink ones here? (zip and rustle) What we try to put in here, we stay away from junk food. We don't want anything the kid's gonna have to do more than peel the top off of it or stick it in a microwave or just consume it right after they take it out there."
The focus on nutrition makes backpack buddies slightly more expensive to operate than conventional food assistance programs- about $125 per child per year. Saccaro says his group receives some donated food and purchases the rest. So far the food bank can help only about 200 kids in a school district where more than 3,000 qualify for the program. For the relative few enrolled, Principal Clark says the extra food on the weekend makes a big difference. She also says when the backpack buddies program first started, kids didn't even wait to get home before tearing into their food.
"At first, when they were so excited, they would open their backpacks on the buses That was a problem we had to address right at first because then they wanted to pass it out, they wanted to share with everybody. Then we convinced them it was to take home to their family. We haven't had any more problems with that."
The kids now keep the food to themselves but it's still a treat. Mimi is a shy fifth grader who says she has a regular favorite inside her supply of food:
"The drinks that are in there."
MATT: "What do you like about the drinks? "
MIMI: "They're sweet."
There are just a few weeks left until Mimi and the other students here begin their summer break. But no school means no backpacks to take home. Many needy kids who don't take classes during the summer lose access to the subsistence programs that keep them healthy. The volunteers at St Joseph's Second Harvest are trying to find a way to get food to the kids who do attend summer school, and hope to open the Backpack Buddies program to even more hungry kids when classes resume in the fall.
For KCUR News, I'm Matt Hackworth.