At Sacramento’s John Still K-8 school, students were not too shy and not too proud to crowd around Erin Ryan, arms outreached as she passed out loaves of bread they could take home to their families.
Third-grader Elijah Eugene Wroe, 8, smiled widely.
“Me and my dad and my brother are going to eat it,” Elijah said, nodding to the two bread bags in hand. Every week, there’s something, he said. Sometimes there are hot dog buns or “a lot of other bread.”
School breakfast and lunch programs have long been a lifeline to low-income children who rely on free or reduced-price meals during the school week. But the practice of helping students stave off hunger when classes are not in session is playing out at more than a half-dozen schools in Rancho Cordova, the city of Sacramento and Placer County. Some groups expanded their efforts last week to provide Thanksgiving turkeys and side dishes to students and their families.
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Supporters say the programs are growing in popularity and expanding to new campuses, especially Title I campuses that serve disadvantaged students. One key aim is simple: to help students learn by ensuring that they don’t have to do it on empty stomachs.
At John Still, the vast majority of students qualify under household income standards, so meals are free for all who attend.
But learning support specialist Amaya Weiss, who arrived at the school four years ago, said she quickly saw that students needed more than free meals. So in addition to providing access to health clinics, bus tickets to school and mental health referrals, she reached out to community groups to ensure students and their siblings don’t go hungry when school is not in session.
Students dropped off too late for breakfast were hungry in class, she said.
“I had a lot of elementary school teachers tell me, ‘I’m spending so much of my own money on breakfast for them.’ ”
She started a food pantry and the Hope Closet for gently used clothes, where parents could shop for free and students might pick out a coat for cold winter days.
A Roseville church and several Granite Bay volunteers are active contributors. Every month, the church packs and delivers 30 bags of food with peanut butter, jelly, pasta sauce, beans and other staples shared with families identified as “in crisis,” Weiss said.
One volunteer works with a class at Greenhills Elementary School in Granite Bay, which has collected socks, snacks and other items monthly, Weiss said. A network of up to 20 people helps bring the items to John Still.
On Friday, more than 100 turkeys and side meals went to families at John Still and five other schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District. Also on Friday, nearly 80 students and their families at North Area Community School, a Sacramento County Office of Education program, received donated turkeys, holiday side dishes and pies, thanks to school staff members and local business sponsors.
Dave Martinez, executive director of the Placer Food Bank, said the need to help families when school was not in session became most obvious when students brought their hunger pangs with them when they returned to schools on Mondays.
In response, the food bank started its food-in-a-backpack program at Woodbridge Elementary School in Roseville about four years ago. The program now operates at four schools and serves 935 students who take food home on Fridays.
A lot of the parents are working two jobs on the weekend, or they just need the extra food. This gives them a sense of security.
Stephanie Vierstra, development officer for Placer Food Bank
Earlier this year, the food bank began testing a larger effort, “Feed our Future,” which combines a mobile food pantry with the backpack program at two of the campuses, Rock Creek Elementary in Auburn and Woodbridge. It provides more food, including perishables, to family members and students.
The strategy is to provide nutritious foods that are easy enough for even children to prepare on weekends and school vacations.
“A lot of the parents are working two jobs on the weekend, or they just need the extra food,” said Stephanie Vierstra, development officer for the food bank. “This gives them a sense of security.”
Schools in Lincoln and Sheridan also receive food for the weekend, while five others in Placer County are on a waiting list, Martinez said.
In Rancho Cordova, volunteers operate the Blessings in a Backpack program, serving about 150 students at two schools. The effort is about to expand to two more campuses in the coming months, program coordinator Janice Davis said.
Initially, she said, the backpacks were difficult to track as they moved from school to home and back. Now the program relies on plastic bags, and the student councils at the schools pack the bags on Thursdays, Davis said. Each includes six meals and two snacks.
“At Cordova Villa (Elementary School), the kids want to be on our program,” Davis said. “There is no stigma. There is no ostracizing.”