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Feeding our Future: ‘This is not about being ashamed’

December 16, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Fitzpatrick Elementary School receives eight plastic bags of food every week, filled with enough snacks and meals to fill the stomachs of eight students.

It is an outreach provided through Holy Comforter Episcopal Church, which is one of 14 agencies that works weekly to feed 520 children in 20 schools who receive assistance through the Montgomery Public Schools Backpack Partnership.

And it is a ministry that allows Fitzpatrick counselor Karen Wilson to ensure her students stay on track through the nourishment they receive.

“We are a Title I school,” she said of the nation’s largest federal assistance program for schools, which works to help every child get a high-quality education.

“Our students are in a big need,” she said. “Some of them don’t receive a meal until they come back to school the next day.”

Sometimes, she said, teachers provide snacks in the mornings to keep the students energized because she knows without proper nutrition, children’s brains don’t develop properly and because of that, they aren’t able to think, complete assignments, or stay on task.

“We’re ecstatic that Holy Comforter asked if they could do something for our students because there is a need,” she said. “The community being a part of the need makes a big difference. We really appreciate and are very grateful for them.”

The Montgomery Advertiser launched “Project 7: Feeding our Future”. The seven-day initiative through tells the stories of students served through the Montgomery Public Schools Backpack Partnership, and also The Backpack Ministry in Prattville through the First United Methodist Church.

Though MPS provides no cost breakfast and lunch for all students while school is in session, there are still pockets of students who leave for the weekend and go to homes where there is very little to eat.

The initiative shares those stories — the ones of hungry children, and of a community filled with churches, organizations and individuals who devote their time every week to ensure those hungry children are fed.

The project also highlights the needs of the programs, such as the food needed to fill the bags, including tuna, macaroni and cheese, ravioli and boxed juice and milk.

Agencies have the option of creating an account at the area food bank, purchasing food from a grocery store or collecting food donations. Every agency supports its own program.

You’ll learn of those who give because they, too, have faced hunger. You’ll meet an elementary school counselor who sees the difference the backpack program makes in the academic performance in her students.

And you’ll learn how you can help through volunteering, donating and how you or your agency can adopt a school.

The church has had a food pantry for a number of years, and it has been a desire of the vestry to extend it out into the community in a different way.

In their search, the church stumbled upon the backpack partnership.

“The gospel says to feed the hungry,” said Neyla McKenzie of Holy Comforter, and who heads the initiative at the church. “I’m doing what I think I’ve been called to do. And that makes me feel good. I’m very much aware how blessed I am and how I always have been in this regard.

“I grew up poor, but we were never hungry. It makes me very aware that I don’t have to go to a food pantry to get food. For children who are powerless, and the things that are happening to them, if any little thing that can make life more bearable for them, that would be good.”

This is the first year the church has been involved in the backpack program, and it was recommended by the partnership’s organizer Mona Davis to take things slow, and small, to ensure the church would have the means in which to feed even a small number of children.

New agencies are required to commit to a year.

“We feel we’re doing a neighborhood outreach program,” said McKenzie. “It’s easy to add children, but difficult to get through half of a school year and say we can’t do this. This has been very well received within the parish.

“I have a gracious problem of running out of space to store food that parishioners have donated. Because we have elementary school children, we have to think of the weight of the food bag and what they can carry.”

Because the church has less than a dozen students, it has not been difficult to get the needed food, or volunteers — who they use to pack bags and then deliver them on Fridays.

“We always send an extra bag or two in case a child gets identified during the week,” McKenzie said. “All the children who receive a bag has to have parental consent. We don’t have a sense of how nomadic some of these children are. It’s November, and there were three children receiving a bag in one family.

“And sometimes, it’s just a matter that they have been evicted. And they’ve had to move somewhere else and they are in another school. The social problems associated with this are so phenomenal.”

Wilson sees the smiles on the faces of Fitzpatrick school children because they know that even though they are not at school over the weekend, that they are going to eat.

The Fitzpatrick teachers, she said, have noticed the students in the program are more aware, more alert, more willing to participate. Grades are increasing. Without the extra food, they were sluggish.

“Even though they are getting something in the morning, if you haven’t had anything since the day before at noon, then of course your body is going to start to feel that,” Wilson said.

“We also have an evening program as well, where our kids can get the supper program. Any student who lives within our area can come in the cafeteria and get a snack (such as a Hot Pocket, hot dog, chicken fingers.”

The school began that program a couple of months ago through a grant, and will extend it until March.

Children admit to school staff when they are hungry. Or they’ll say, “My mom works and so we didn’t get a chance to eat a real meal other than cereal or a Pop Tart,” Wilson said. “They’re hungry until the next day, so that backpack program provides for them.”

As a counselor, Wilson said it is her job to make sure she meets the needs of the students. A lot of times, she said, people are ashamed and they don’t want anyone to know their circumstances.

“But most of my parents know I am there to help them,” she said. “This is not about being ashamed. A lot of times the parents are embarrassed. They think we’ll look down on them.

“If (students) come to school late, we try and feed them something. The office will hold some kind of dried cereal or some fruit, so if they come in and say they are hungry, the teachers know to send them to the office, or to me, and we get them something.”

But if they are on time, and eating breakfast, Wilson said they often eat a lot.

“There are times we give them seconds because they’re hungry,” she said. “We know they’re hungry. Our teachers are very connected to their students to know when something is wrong. And it’s not a case of them not having eaten breakfast, but also that they missed dinner the night before.

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