By MIKE McCLEARY, The Bismarck Tribune
BISMARCK, ND (AP) – For years teachers at Bismarck-Mandan public schools would pull out boxes of instant crackers or packets of mac and cheese hidden in their desk drawers, buy something from a vending machine, or prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to give students who they knew wouldn’t have enough to eat on the weekends.
When these students returned to class recently, many were unable to concentrate, complained of upset stomachs and dizziness, or caused disruption in the classroom. Food insecurity – not having reliable access to adequate food – was not only a troubling problem for many families, it was having a negative impact in schools.
It wasn’t just primary schools either. Teachers and social workers also recognized symptoms in middle and high school students who ate the majority of their meals from the school lunch program on weekdays.
“Out of necessity there was a need for a more unified effort across the school district, simply because it was too much for teachers and other school staff to try to meet those needs,” said Chris Hall. , social worker at Jeannette Myhre elementary school. “I think there were just enough people talking about it to say ‘Damn there are so many hungry kids that we should be able to do something as a community to meet that need.’”
The community has grown stronger.
In 2006, Community Action Program, a national nonprofit organization with eight sites in the state, received the results of an annual North Dakota needs assessment conducted by Dakota State University. North and the Community Services Division of the State Department of Commerce. He showed a problem of food insecurity among homeless students in public schools in Bismarck who depend on free and reduced meals as their main source of food each week.
Community Action Program The Bismarck region offered a Backpacks for Kids program in 2006 to provide students with food and snacks to help them on the weekends. It was similar to a program performed in Kansas. The state Department of Commerce has awarded a grant of $ 18,000 to benefit 50 children at some schools in Bismarck.
In the following years, thanks to increased funding and donations from the government, the program expanded to all food insecure students in Bismarck and Mandan public schools. Soon, more than 800 bags of food were distributed each week, reported the Bismarck Tribune.
This school year, the Backpacks for Kids program is helping nearly 1,700 students in 40 schools, including Center, Stanton and Selfridge, according to Andrea Werner, executive director of the Bismarck area community action program. By March of this year, the organization had distributed over 23,000 bags of food at a cost of about $ 6 per bag.
“With our North Dakota needs assessment that we are doing, food insecurity is on par with housing and rental assistance needs,” Werner said. “I just think that because of the increase that schools see each year, there are a lot of low income families getting free and reduced breakfasts, and that’s an extra layer of help that we can offer. . “
In 2013, the cost of funding the program became too high to sustain, so the agency turned to Missouri Slope Areawide United Way for help.
The organization, which now funds its own backpack program, reaches 35 schools each week with around 1,300 bags of food for students at Bismarck and Mandan public schools.
“People don’t want children to go hungry, so we’re very grateful that we can fund our backpack program through private donations and grants,” said Executive Director Jena Gullo.
Every Friday afternoon, the bags are left at the doors of the classes and the teachers discreetly place them in the students’ backpacks.
“We just want to remove this barrier to children’s academic success, and if it’s as easy as providing food for the weekend, why wouldn’t you do it?” Hall said.
Backpacking effort is directly tied to the school district’s reading and math goals, according to Tamara Uselman, superintendent of Bismarck Public Schools from 2011 to 2018.
“If we are to raise academics who can feed themselves and the people they love, we have to provide them with food so that they can do this work,” she said. “If we can feed the children and at the same time teach them and develop their professional skills, they will be able to feed themselves and the people they love. This is the end goal.
Finding a solution “took a group of people who didn’t want to blame families for not being able to feed their children and wanted to help families so that they could make sure that some children could learn,” Uselman said.
“I think the community that is not food insecure may not be aware of the extent of this food insecurity and its impact on a child’s inability to learn,” he said. she declared.
Finding the food to fill all those backpacks has become intimidating during the pandemic, according to Gullo and Lori Hillestad, Backpack for Kids coordinator at Community Action.
Ordering food in bulk from local food warehouses is problematic, and customers have left many retail and grocery store shelves bare with panic buying. Some food manufacturers are facing labor shortages and have been unable to produce their normal quantity and variety of items.
“It was a hell of a ordeal,” said Hillestad. “I struggled to get food in and had to place small orders more frequently. “
Gullo said local supermarket Cash Wise Foods had stepped up to fill numerous orders for his agency.
Community Action also depends on local food drives to complete its program. For example, students at the small Apple Creek school east of Bismarck recently donated over a ton of food.
Community Action and Centraide rely on businesses, service organizations, youth groups and individual volunteers every week to fill bags in an assembly line and then deliver them to schools.
Even though schools close during the summer months, backpacking efforts continue to deliver bags of food each week to schools for families to collect.
The issue of feeding students when they are not in school was magnified at the start of the pandemic when schools in North Dakota closed and switched to distance education.
During the time of isolation, the school cooks brought meals to the children.
“We immediately started serving take-out meals to these families, and from several different locations,” said Becky Heinert, director of nutrition services for Mandan Public Schools.
The effort was boosted when the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the nation’s free and discounted school lunch program, extended a free lunch waiver to all students throughout the school year.
In the back of closed trucks and school buses, kitchen staff at Bismarck and Mandan Schools prepared hundreds of bags of breakfast and lunch meals to distribute to children and families five days a week and for the weekend, to try to feed the children and keep in touch with the families.
In a typical school year, nearly 30% of students in Mandan public schools receive free or reduced meals; in Bismarck, it’s about 25%.
“There are a lot of children that we are their only meal they will have,” said Michelle Wagner, director of the infant nutrition program for Bismarck Public Schools. “I don’t think people realize it in Bismarck, but it’s true. If it wasn’t offered to them at a free or discounted rate, I don’t think they would get anything.
The USDA extended the universal free school meals program in April to the 2021-22 school year.
For public schools in Bismarck – the state’s largest school district with more than 13,200 students – the expansion is good news.
“For our department, it’s good to know for planning purposes how we’ll do it next year, and we hope to feed more students,” Wagner said. “This is great news for our families who have been affected by the pandemic. Public schools in Bismarck will still feed students, but now parents no longer have to worry about a negative balance accumulating if they are not entitled to free and reduced meals.
Wagner stressed the importance for parents of continuing to complete requests for free and reduced meals, as requests also affect other programs in the district.
“Our service is concerned that families do not fill out the paperwork because meals are free,” she said.
When the school meal program returns to normal, families who have not applied will not be in the system and eligible for free and reduced meals. A sudden increase in the number of applications once the extended waiver is no longer available would lead to a backlog and a long delay in processing forms.
At the end of each school year, the problem of child hunger does not go away. For several years, Heinert and Wagner have teamed up to organize summer meal programs open to the public.
Before the pandemic, the meal program was a daily event full of food and activities. Last year, the meals distributed had to be prepared at home. This year, the plan is to serve hot meals, or ready-to-eat meals, in more places.
The summer meal program is a way for students, families and kitchen staff to say they are connected, especially during the pandemic.
“Cooks would get to know these families because they would come in every day and know how many servings for them,” Wagner said. “They knew these families inside and out and they really bonded with them. It’s the nicest thing to see, especially relationship building.
For Heinert and his team, attending the distribution of the summer meals was a revelation.
“They are proud people and they don’t want handouts, but some of them really need it,” she said. “This is where it is difficult. We don’t know what’s going on in their financial world. It definitely opened our eyes.
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