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Sexton Mountain Elementary School has rallied to help people without enough to eat.

STAFF PHOTO: BLAIR STENVICK - Volunteers have been helping out, collecting and distributing food for students whose families don't have enough.The Beaverton School District had nine snow days this past winter. For many local kids, that meant nine chances to sleep in, build snowmen, and partake in snowball fights. But for other district families, it meant nine days without subsidized school breakfast and lunch, meaning they had to stretch their already-tight budgets even thinner.

Teresa Clemons-Brower, principal at Sexton Mountain Elementary School, noticed this issue after the snow melted and school was back in session.

"It started with kids coming back from break and not being excited about school, but being excited about breakfast and lunch," Clemons-Brower said. "We started identifying individual families, and heard from our social worker liaison just how many families were impacted by those snow days."

In total, the Sexton Mountain community has 11 families who are food-insecure, comprising 26 children. Clemons-Brower assembled a group of parent volunteers to address this issue by sending kids home with backpacks full of donated food every weekend. They call themselves Planting Seeds.

Community connections

"The thing is that unusual is that we aren't a Title I school," said Jen Fife-Adams, one of the parent volunteers for Planting Seeds, referring to the federal designation for schools serving an area with a concentration of low-income families.

"We are a school of privilege. So I think we make an assumption that everyone is doing OK. So to find out that there are families falling through the cracks, we wanted to create a food support program for the families at our school."

The Planting Seeds volunteers started making calls to local organizations, including the Oregon Food Bank, St. Cecilia Church and Holy Trinity Church, which has helped kick-start similar programs in 10 local schools.

They also reached out to Pacific Foods, a broth and soup company based in Tualatin.

"I just left a message on their standard web page," said Cassandra Buyserie, another parent volunteer. "They got back to me the same day, and they're now donating 50 servings of food every other week."

Planting Seeds also raised more than $1,000 on fundraising website CrowdRise for their spring break efforts, which meant they were able to send each family home with a box full of meals and snacks for the week.

Of the 11 families Planting Seeds provides for, two also are home-insecure, meaning they do not always have a consistent place to go home to. The first week of the program, one of the home-insecure students looked in their bag and saw Spaghetti-Os and other easily-prepared dishes.

"I get to eat this week!" she exclaimed.

Once the program gains more momentum, the Planting Seeds volunteers hope to extend their efforts to Highland Park Middle School, for which Setxon Mountain is a feeder school.

A teachable moment

The faculty and parent volunteers at Sexton Mountain have used Planting Seeds as a platform for educating students about food insecurity and philanthropy. They recently held two food drives, one called "Drop a kid, drop a can," during which parents donated food as they dropped their kids off at school. Fifteen fourth-graders volunteered to pick up the food.

"People were just handing bags over," Fife-Adams said. "We ended up getting so much from that."

At a second and third grade music show at Sexton Mountain, Planting Seeds organized a competition between the classes to see which would donate the most food. The tables were both overflowing with food by the end of the night — so they called it a tie.

Some students are even donating food by their own volition. Liam, a second grader at Sexton Mountain, asked for canned food instead of presents at his eighth birthday party. Harper Fife-Adams, Jen's daughter and a fourth grader, donated proceeds from a recent art show to Planting Seeds.

"Our kids are thinking about others in a way that they have not thought about others before," said Clemons-Brower.

Tangible benefits

In the first month of Planting Seed's existence, President Donald Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, made headlines by saying that there was no proven benefit to free school lunch programs. Clemons-Brower said that she already has seen programs like these make a difference in the past. Last school year, she was arranging help for just one family at Sexton Mountain, and saw a major change.

"Just by having a food delivery every single week, the child's attendance changed dramatically," she said. "It was amazing that something as simple as four containers of applesauce, four containers of mac n' cheese, and four granola bars could change a child's attendance, because it made it easier for them to get their basic needs met before coming to get their educational needs met."

Clemons-Brower said it's easy to talk about launching programs like Planting Seeds — but that especially right now, actions are more important than ever.

"In our political climate ... action is huge," she said. "So being able to come alongside someone with support is great."