By KIM HORNER / The Dallas Morning News
Hundreds of kids eagerly line up in the James Bowie Elementary School gym after lunch every Friday, wearing their blue backpacks open against their stomachs.
One by one, physical education teacher Sharon Foster fills each of their packs with a plastic grocery bag full of food. The milk, cereal, crackers and other nutritious snacks come through the North Texas Food Bank and are intended to keep the kids from going hungry over the weekend, when they can’t rely on school breakfasts or lunches.”Thank you, coach,” they say as they zip up their packs.
The program, called Food 4 Kids, distributes more than 5,000 snack-loaded packs each week at 269 schools from Cedar Hill to Denton. The Dallas-based hunger-relief organization is working to expand to provide 6,000 backpacks weekly by the summer.
The agency pays for the food and backpacks through private donations, including contributions from The Dallas Morning News Charities. The food bank is one of 22 nonprofit agencies that rely on donations from The Charities. Donations to the fund drive specifically buy food for the packs, at a cost of $5 a week.
The food bank created Food 4 Kids in 2004 because of concerns about children not having enough to eat at home. Texas has the highest rate of child hunger in the nation, according to a report by Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization that found that one of every four children does not have consistent access to food. North Texas Food Bank officials have received reports from schools of children eating food off the cafeteria floors and out of the garbage.
The charity’s nutrition experts train teachers to look for other signs of chronic hunger, including rushing through cafeteria lines and asking for food, said Jan Pruitt, the agency’s chief executive officer. There also are physical signs such as chronically cracked lips, spoon-shaped fingernails and puffiness, she said.
Teachers found that some of the kids they pegged as having short attention spans or behavioral problems actually were hungry. The children don’t fit most people’s images of someone suffering from hunger.
“Thank goodness their teachers are watching and identifying them,” Ms. Pruitt said. “These are kids that you would see anywhere and you would never in your mind go, ‘There’s a hungry child.’ “
In addition to the backpacks, the food bank supplies food for 38,000 children every week to area food pantries, where their parents pick up free staple groceries. The demand for groceries from area food banks has risen 25 percent in recent months because of the difficult economy, Ms. Pruitt said. That has led to a drop in donations to the agency despite greater than ever need.
The Food 4 Kids packs are loaded with easy-to-fix snacks including peanut butter and jelly, pudding and fruit cups, because some kids spend time at home alone while their parents work. Some schools have unique ways of distributing the packs to protect the recipients’ privacy, such as calling kids to a “gold star” club meeting.
At James Bowie in north Oak Cliff, more than half of the school’s 650 students qualify for the program, so stigma isn’t as much of an issue.
“The kids look forward to it all week,” Ms. Foster said. “They want it; they need it.”
The school has a large population of children living in low-income homes. Most students at the school receive free or reduced-price lunches.
It’s the second year that Food 4 Kids has been offered at Bowie. Principal Abril Rivera said the program and other hunger-relief efforts at the school have helped children focus on their lessons and do their homework at night. She said the school received a higher accountability rating this year, going from acceptable to recognized, which she believes is attributable to Food 4 Kids and two other programs: Hunger Busters and Taco Bueno, which provide meals after school.
“When you’re hungry, you can’t think of anything but being hungry,” she said. “It’s been very helpful. The kids love it. They’re dying to come get their snacks.”
‘This helps a lot’
Rachel Gonzales, a teaching assistant at the school, said she’s grateful for the food. She has five children at Bowie who receive the backpacks and especially like the milk.
“We can barely make ends meet buying groceries, without snacks,” she said. “This helps a lot.”
Since 1986, The Charities has raised more than $18.5 million for area nonprofit agencies that serve the homeless and hungry. The 2008-09 fundraising campaign runs through Jan. 31, though donations are accepted anytime. The News pays all administrative costs, so 100 percent of donations goes to the agencies.
You can make a difference. Visit ntfb.org.