2017-12-28 / Front Page

Underfunded Pell Food Program Faces Delay

By Brooke Constance White

A longtime Pell Elementary School program aimed at providing students in need with weekend meals will start later than usual, and will serve fewer children due to lack of funding.

The Backpack Feeding Program, which started more than 10 years ago, has historically given approximately 120 Pell students two days’ worth of meals and snacks each Friday from November to June, will likely start in mid-January, and will be limited to about 50 students, according to program representatives.

Program organizers, Newport Family and Child Opportunity Zone (NFCOZ) and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, piece together a budget from various sources. So far this has been a lean year for funding, said Christine Arouth, director of East Bay Community Action Program’s NFCOZ.

“Every year we start from scratch with the budget because there isn’t a consistent stream of funding for it,” said Arouth, adding that the program ideally begins in November after teachers have identified which students are in need of weekend meals. “Some years are better and we find funding and then other years we struggle a bit more.”

Over the years, the program has received funding through the Rhode Island Foundation, the John Clark Trust Fund and an anonymous local donor, according to Arouth. At the moment, she said, it has about $7,000 in funding from groups including the Federal Emergency Management Association and the local Singing Out Against Hunger, as well as a local donor, but needs another $10,000 to reach its goal so it can provide weekend meals for 100-plus students. Two days of meals for each student costs approximately $7, and the food bank is negotiating with its vendors for the lowest possible price, Arouth said.

From December 2016 to June 2017, the Backpack Feeding Program distributed 2,655 food bags to 187 students, which equates to 13,275 meals, according to a pro gram fact sheet that Arouth compiled.

“I’d certainly rather get the program started with lower numbers of students than not getting started at all,” Arouth said. “The food bank is great at helping us scale up as we get funding, so we’re hopeful that we’ll get there.”

Students indicating signs of food insecurity are referred to the program by teachers and administrators who observe various physical and behavioral signs, including anxiety, depression, and difficulty paying attention, among others. Once Arouth has a list of names, she sits down with school administrators to determine which children will be a part of the Backpack Feeding Program.

Even though food is placed in students’ lockers so they can slip it into their backpacks discreetly without others knowing, Arouth said they’ve limited the program to Pell students because during program trials middle school students were too embarrassed to participate.

Rebecca Bolan, school committee member and chairman of its health and wellness subcommittee, said that with 64 percent of Pell’s 900 students being eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches, ensuring they are fed on weekends is imperative. The subcommittee's goal is to eliminate obstacles hampering students from utilizing meal programs at Pell and throughout the district, she said.

Students can now eat breakfast when they arrive at school in the morning, and any student participating in an after-school program gets dinner as well. During school vacations, schools often open their doors to serve lunch, and during the summer serve a free daily lunch at 10 sites across the city.

“There are people who say it’s the parents’ responsibility to feed their children,” Bolan said. “I know I can’t control what goes on at these kids’ homes, but I can make sure they are fed meals during the day at school and on the weekend. It’s one less thing to get in the way of their learning.”

People often ask if they can hold food drives in order to help, but Arouth said Pell has no room to store donated food and they are looking for very specific, kid-friendly meals so that each student goes home for the weekend with two breakfasts, two lunch entrees, two dinner entrees, five snacks and six juice boxes. Each bag of food is ordered, packed and delivered by the food bank to the school on Thursdays for distribution on Friday.

Instead of donating food, Arouth suggests making tax-deductible donations, which can be submitted to the East Bay Community Action Program and mailed to the attention of Christine Arouth, NFCOZ Director, Pell Elementary School, 35 Dexter Street, Newport, RI 02840 or processed online at: app.etapestry.com/onlineforms/EastBayCommunityActionProgram/ BackpackProgram. html

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