At the onset of the new school year, the teachers as well as the students, have a lot to learn – not only about their new routines, courses and curriculums – but about each other.
The students at-risk for not getting enough food at home are identified mainly by their behavior in the school cafeteria at lunchtime. “They will be the ones always asking for seconds – stuffing food in their pockets for later, or asking friends for the food they are going to throw away,” says Karen Hughes, Youth Center Coordinator for Tichenor Middle School in Erlanger.
“Then we’ll ask them – ‘will a weekly Power Pack help you?’”
The sober reality is that today, thousands of children within the Freestore Foodbank’s 20 county region will go home at the end of the school day on Friday and not eat a healthy and nutritious meal again until they return on Monday. Power Packs, a program of the Freestore Foodbank, bridges this gap for low income children. A Power Pack contains kid-friendly, shelf-stable food items that were recently updated to improve nutritional value and diversity.
Support from our local community helps to fuel the work that the Freestore Foodbank carries out each and every day. The Charles H. Dater Foundation has supported the Freestore Foodbank since 1987, and has provided vital support for the Power Pack program for more than 5 years, enabling a steady increase in the number of children served and continuous improvements in the program.
Thanks to the Dater Foundation’s support this past school year, we partnered with 94 schools in Ohio and Kentucky, providing 4,100 Power Packs to students each week in grades K-8. We deliver Power Packs to schools that have 60% or more of their students on free and reduced lunch programs. Partnering schools identify the students who are most at-risk for going hungry over the weekend to participate.
The number of students eligible for free-or-reduced lunches at Tichenor Middle School has risen from 40% in 2011, to 68% in 2013. The administration credits in large part the progressive elimination of subsidized housing in Northern Kentucky, which has resulted in increased enrollment and demand for family services, such as housing, clothing and food.
“The dynamics of how at-risk children may respond to available help, like Power Packs, changes dramatically from elementary school to middle school,” says Karen. “The younger children will tell you the truth, because they aren’t embarrassed to ask for what they need. Middle school kids are afraid to be singled out for anything, much less for not having enough of what they think everyone else has.”
Until now, the Power Pack items have remained largely the same, with slight variations due to product availability, since the program launched almost ten years ago. In 2013, an initiative was launched to re-evaluate existing items as well as investigate new products that met stricter criteria for being nutritious, minimally processed and appealing to children.
In September of 2013, Kroger donated 500 paper bags of 10-12 selected mixed items each to the Freestore Foodbank, with the intent that school children would try the food and provide their feedback. A sampling of Kids Cafes (a program of the Freestore Foodbank that feeds children a hot meal at after-school locations) across the organization’s 20-county service area were selected as partners to complete the surveys.
Additional wide-ranging product testing continued, which included extensive sourcing, taste testing and nutritional analysis of many products.
Products that scored high in nutrition and appeal include whole grain cereals, Chef Boyardee entrees, fruit-vegetable blend drinks, fortified snack bars and sunflower seeds. Working in collaboration with the Nutrition Council, the Freestore Foodbank selected a total of 15 items for the final Power Pack mix, which is five more than the previous bag contained.
Student William B. shared with Karen that the Power Packs help his family of six save a little money on the weekends, and that the Packs contain food items that his family probably wouldn’t normally buy.
Tichenor students currently enrolled in the program participated in the Power Pack surveys. The items now arrive packaged in plain medium-sized brown paper bags, vs. clear plastic bags that were used previously. “There is more anonymity with the paper bags,” says Karen. “The kids aren’t so self-conscious about carrying them through the halls.”
“I used to have to remind some of the kids to pick up their packs,” says Karen. “Now they’re practically beating down my door on Friday afternoons. These new Power Packs are a HUGE hit.”