Help provide food for 950 students facing hunger

by Bill Tschohl
Special to Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune

The board of the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District 196 Foundation reports that our students come first. Too many students have little to eat on weekends and need support. We have 18 elementary schools, six middle schools and four, four-year high schools. Among these schools there are an estimated 950 who are living in “food insecurity.” Currently 19 of 31 district schools and roughly 550 students have had their food needs sponsored, however, 12 schools and an estimated 400 students are still in need. Knowing they possibly will not have food on the weekend affects student behavior and their classwork. We live in a wonderful and caring community, and the District 196 Foundation wants to do everything possible to alleviate the hunger of these young students. The foundation board has committed to sponsor 150 students with a donation of $19,500 and is actively seeking to identify and recruit individuals, churches and business sponsors for the remaining schools. The foundation’s mission is to enhance educational opportunities and experiences for students.

Three years ago a group of Greenleaf Elementary School staff members noticed students coming back from lunch with food stuffed in their pockets. The students would then pack the food from the cafeteria in their backpacks to take home. On Monday mornings these same students seemed extra hungry and had trouble staying focused on learning. With help from a few key parent volunteers these concerned staff members started a weekend food backpack program that was funded with donations from Greenleaf parents and community members. The program provided weekend food for about 60 Greenleaf students the first year in 2013-14. The food was mostly single-serve items and snacks purchased and packed by the volunteers and staff and discreetly provided to students inside backpacks every Friday. While looking for ways to streamline their operation in year two, the group came across The Sheridan Story, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that started in 2000 much the same way as Greenleaf did. The Sheridan Story – named after the Minneapolis elementary school where the organization started – leverages community and school partnerships to fight child hunger by providing a weekend’s supply of food to hungry children. The organization facilitates partnerships between community organizations such as churches and schools. A church or other organization can partner with a school by providing funding to the District 196 Foundation so it is possible for students to receive a weekly food bag throughout the school year. The cost is $130 per child for the entire school year.

In 2014-15 the Greenleaf volunteers partnered with The Sheridan Story, which made it easier for the Greenleaf volunteers by eliminating the purchasing and packing steps of the process. The weekly food bags from The Sheridan Story also included more substantive and nutritious items than those provided the first year. Each bag contains four to five pounds of shelf-stable food, including canned fruits, vegetables and proteins (tuna and chicken) soup and boxed pasta, rice and beans. Volunteers from a local church discreetly distributed the bags.

The Board of the District 196 Foundation expanded the model via partnerships with The Sheridan Story and local churches and organizations for the 2015-16 school year and this made a significant impact on District 196 students – 547 (58 percent) of the estimated 950 students were sponsored. Strong relationships have been developed between the schools and sponsoring organizations. More importantly student attendance has increased and hungry students returning to schools on Mondays has decreased. The true benefits of the program can be hard to measure, but school staff members are reporting fewer hungry children during the day and on Monday mornings. The program has also strengthened relationships between the school and families who are grateful for receiving the food.

You can help. It costs $130 per school year to provide one child a weekend bag of food each week. Tax-deductible donations can be made online or by writing a check to the District 196 Foundation. Include “The Sheridan Story” in the memo line and mail it to the District 196 Foundation Office, 3455 153rd St. W., Rosemount, MN 55068. If you have questions about making a donation or partnership with a District 196 school, call Director of Community Education Khia Brown at 651-423-7720.

Bill Tschohl is a District 196 Foundation director. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.