2015-12-23 / Around Town

Program Seeks Help to Fight Local Childhood Hunger

By Olga Enger

At a time of the year when many families enjoy an abundance of gifts and food, some Newport children don’t have enough for a basic meal.

Notwithstanding the need, an initiative run by the East Bay Community Action Program (EBCAP) that provides food directly to elementary children most at risk for hunger has been forced to make tough decisions to remove students from their list and delay the program due to lack of funds.

A recent survey of Pell Elementary School teachers determined that 130 students show symptoms of food insecurity, which is defined by a household that has at least one person who goes hungry at times when money runs short. Almost 65 percent of Newport’s public school students are eligible for the federal program of free or reduced school meals, based on their household income.

“I don’t think people realize how much real poverty we have in the community,” said Newport School Committee member Becky Bolan, who is also chair of the Health and Wellness Committee.

For 10 years, the Backpack Feeding Program, which is run through EBCAP’s Newport Family and Child Opportunity Zone (NFCOZ), has raised funds to provide food packages in student lockers every Friday. The bags include food that children may prepare independently, such as fruit snacks or instant oatmeal.

This year, organizers say that some students identified at Pell as showing symptoms of food insecurity haven’t been served by the program, which usually begins in November but will be delayed until after winter break due to funding shortfalls.

Last school year, the Backpack Feeding Program distributed a total of 3,242 food bags to 137 students.

“Last year we were fortunate to have more money,” said Christine Arouth, NFCOZ director. The cost per child is approximately $10 per week, or $220 a year, said Arouth. This year, around $11,000 has been raised through grants and $300 through private donations, which reaches around 60 of the 130 children identified at high risk for food insecurity.

“They had to cut the list by more than half, because there wasn’t enough money,” said Bolan.

The program has been funded by a variety of sources over the years, including Feeding America, the Rhode Island Foundation, FEMA, Dunkin’ Donuts, Singing Out Against Hunger, the van Beuren Foundation, the John Clarke Trust Fund, and private donations. The food is ordered by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and packed by volunteers.

The concern about local food insecurity grows during school holidays.

“It became apparent that some students go the entire winter break without a cooked meal,” said Bolan. “When they are at school, they will receive at least one balanced meal, but the risk grows with longer vacations.”

For the first time this year, a free meal is being offered during the weeks of winter break, for any Newport child up to age 18. The program is sponsored by the school district, Chartwells and NFCOZ.

“The meal is provided, no questions asked,” added Bolan.

“We have families that are struggling to make it work,” said Arouth. “They are doing the right thing, working hard. Sometimes it just doesn’t all add up.”

The group also works with families to access other food resources through SNAP, WIC, local food pantries and soup kitchens.

To contribute to the effort, go to ebcap.org and click on “To Donate.” Type “NFCOZ Backpacks” to ensure the funds are allocated to the program.

Return to top