Preventing local student hunger
Although most people take basic needs like food for granted, there are as many as 156 students in the Crook County School District who go home without enough food for the weekend, according to CCSD records.
Weekends and long school breaks can be the most difficult for these families, so a program was started nearly nine years ago to provide child-friendly meals that students can prepare themselves. The Food for Kids Weekend Backpack Program provides students with a small bag of food at the end of each week to get them by during the weekend.
Angelia Wagner, a second-grade instructor at Crooked River Elementary, has been involved with the program from the beginning.
"I started this program nine years ago as I was watching an episode of Ellen (DeGeneres), and saw that a principal from a Las Vegas school had implemented this program as her students had 100% free and reduced lunches," explained Wagner. "I knew that a lot of students in our district were either homeless or their families were struggling in some form. We started out with 25 students on the program, and the need continued to grow."
She emphasized that each school in the Crook County School District has students in need, and the Weekend Backpack Program has expanded to make sure there is a small pantry at each building for students to shop and pick out food they want to eat during the weekend.
The main pantry and location is at Crooked River Elementary, and deliveries to restock each school are made monthly or when supplies are running low. The average cost per bag per child is $3 - $5 per week. In the past few years, the need has increased significantly, and the program now serves 156 students throughout the district.
"The hardship is prevalent in Crook County," Wagner said. "Being able to ease the stress for many children and provide them with food on the weekend is truly a blessing. Many teachers and staff in various schools tell me that they physically see the relief in these children's eyes and their body language once the students receive a bag of food on Fridays."
She added that the stories from teachers and staff solidify why there is such a dire need to fill the gap.
"Not having enough food is very traumatic for these children," said Wagner.
The Food For Kids Weekend Backpack Program is funded entirely by grants and donations. Several local businesses have been a constant source of donations, and recently the Prineville Branch of Mid Oregon Credit Union collected food items and shopped at Ray's Food Place to help jumpstart the school year for the program. With funds donated from the community, the credit union and Ray's Food Place, Mid Oregon staff were able to spend $875 on 350 items — including fruit snacks, granola bars, cereal, and macaroni and cheese.
Wagner said the program has also received grants from St. Charles Health System, with the most recent for $5,000.
"This is an amazing amount and we are truly grateful," said Wagner. "Without amazing partners that continue to add to our resources, we would not be able to sustain our program throughout the school year. Each and every partner makes a tremendous difference for our students."
When the program has proper funding, Wagner said, those who help with the school pantries are able to provide bags and boxes of cereal, individual jars of peanut butter, and weekly fruit cups. Program helpers can add peanut butter more often, as many students do not have access to microwave ovens or a stove. Younger children may not know how to make macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles.
"These are items we could not always give to our students on a weekly basis as we have run on such a tight budget in the past," Wagner pointed out. "It seems like simple items, but with 150 plus-or-minus students each week, the expenses add up."
She has felt the need to be mindful of every penny spent, since the program has never experienced this level of need before.
"We also try to shop local to support the Grocery Outlet, where the prices of the items fluctuate," she added. "We can get as many great deals at the Dollar Tree too."
The security of the funds for the program is based on the school year, and spreading the funds properly can be affected by poverty levels, enrollment numbers, referrals from teachers and staff and community involvement. The current year has proved to have the highest number of students enrolled in the program since its inception.
To donate to the Food For Kids Weekend Backpack Program:
Donors for the Food For Kids Weekend Backpack Program include:
Les Schwab Tire Center, Mid Oregon Credit Union, Ray's Food Place, Kiwanis of Crook County, Rotary Club of Crook County, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church — Prineville, Judge Daina Vitolins and Crook County District Attorney's Office, Our Savior's Lutheran Church, Neighbor Impact, Crook County on the Move, Grocery Outlet, Patricia Nagel, Sarah at the Dollar Tree, along with many more individual supporters.
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