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Weekend meals help kids succeed in school

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BY ROY WENZL, The Wichita Eagle

Kayleigh Beshears carries a bag of food through the hallways of Stanley Elementary on Thursday. The food is distributed to school kids through the Food 4 Kids program. The program sends kids home with food for the weekend so they have something to eat while not in school.

David Larson looped the straps of half a dozen backpacks on his shoulders. Inside the packs: Crackers. Fruit cups. Vienna sausages in cans. For five minutes now, he’d told stories about starving and stealing. Stories about kids. “If people saw the hunger we’ve seen, they’d be shocked,” he said.

Before the backpacks came, some kids arrived here, at Lincoln Elementary School, starving every Monday, he said. The teachers, the social workers, the lunch ladies, they all saw it: “Kids wolfing down school breakfasts on Mondays,” he said.

Stealing bread rolls on Fridays to hoard for the weekend. Kids stealing cookies from teachers.

People outside the schools have a hard time believing these stories, Larson said. But the Kansas Food Bank has found at least 3,510 such kids in Kansas schools — nearly 1,100 of them in Wichita — and is adding hundreds more kids to its backpack program every year. Larson has seen it all. He’s talked to the kids’ parents.

“Parents break down and cry here. They tell stories: ‘I had a job — I lost my job. I have these kids — the kids need help. We have nowhere to turn — we go whole weekends without food.’ ”

Larson adjusted the straps of the backpacks on his shoulders. So did Sarah Lamb, a college student helping him that day.

They headed out Larson’s office door to classrooms where little kids with bare cupboards at home awaited their arrival.

Thirty-one kids from Lincoln would eat this weekend.

Hunger everywhere

The food scouts nowadays find hungry kids even in affluent Andover.

“Food insecure,” they call them. A food-insecure child, according to the Food Bank, means the kid does not know whether he will eat tomorrow, or this weekend.

As the Kansas Food Bank’s Food 4 Kids backpack program has grown over four years, adding new schools and school districts every year, the food scouts, lunch ladies, teachers, social workers and Communities in Schools coordinators like Larson, have added hundreds of new kids to the backpack rolls.

What they see upsets them.

Larson once scolded a kid who stole from a teacher’s snack stash. There was computer equipment he could have stolen, but he took food. The staff reprimanded him, until they learned he was hungry.

“Some stuff you hear is heartbreaking,” Larson said. “Kids, 6, 7, or 8 years old, wondering all week whether they get to eat this weekend.”

Empty cupboards

The Food Bank, with teachers, social workers and other scouts spotting for it, started giving food backpacks to food-insecure children in 2004. In that first year, the Food Bank recruited scouts in 30 schools, most of them in Wichita; the scouts found 632 food-insecure kids that year.

Larson works at Lincoln through Communities in Schools, the nation’s largest dropout-prevention organization. He says keeping kids fed keeps them in school. Some of what he’s seen is hard to take, including “watching big, tough-guy fathers melt into tears when I tell them that we’ve found a way to send food home on weekends.”

The scouts are seeing more working people going hungry in recent years. “The people in our neighborhood are not the kind who sit around,” said Julie Bettis, the principal at Stanley Elementary School in south Wichita. “They work, but all they can get are minimum-wage jobs. But they can’t make it.”

Bettis watched on Thursday as first-graders like Cinzee Keith, 7, a gabby boy with wavy brown hair, showed up to get food from Food Bank scout Gary Meitler. Cinzee’s mother, Cidenua, was with him.

“We just can’t keep enough food in the house to feed the boys,” Cidenua Keith said. “If it weren’t for this program we wouldn’t make it.” Both she and her husband have jobs, she said.

The Food Bank director, Brian Walker, began the Food 4 Kids program four years ago, after he stood beside long lines outside many of the dozens of food pantries his agency supplies with food, and surmised from all the children he saw that there were hundreds or thousands of students in Kansas not getting enough to eat outside school. He was right.

Walker drove south, studied a program in Oklahoma that put food backpacks into the hands of food-insecure schoolchildren, and won a Knight Foundation grant to run the Kansas program.

Walker and Larry Gunkel, his program coordinator, ask their school scouts to write one-paragraph reports about what they see in schools. Gunkel has hundreds of these cryptic reports.

What the scouts say

A 4th grader was left by his father and the mother was having a hard time with food and bills. Sending the backpack home over the weekend helped the child and the family in their time of need.

–Allen Elementary School

Two of our students have only been receiving one meal a day on the weekend. The Food 4 Kids program has made a tremendous difference in these students’ lives. They now look forward to their weekends and come back to school on Monday, nourished and ready to learn.

–Jackson Elementary School

Dad lost his job and finances were tight this month.

–Gardiner Elementary School

One young man, who was homeless but temporarily living with a grandmother, but who showed “real” signs of hunger, was so tickled about getting the food I thought he was going to jump in the air every time I put it in his backpack. It made him SO very very happy. Another positive, he always says thank you, thank you, thank you.

–Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet School

2 of the families receiving this service are single moms and very poverty stricken. They have been grateful. “Thank you.”

–Nelson Elementary School

Hunger spreads

Walker’s Food Bank scouts find hunger in schools not only in Wichita and in rural counties but in the Andover, Maize and Goddard school districts, where they send small numbers of packets.

“This problem is spreading,” Gunkel said.

Contrary to common assumptions, most food-insecure children in Wichita, and most of the poor, are white, according to Walker and Sue Steele, the Wichita district’s liaison to homeless children in schools.

At Stanley Elementary, Bettis, the principal, said 90 percent of her 400 students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, and white children make up nearly half the student body. Most of the nearly 50 students who got a packet from Meitler on Thursday were white.

Outside the schools, said Lincoln principal Laura McLemore, “people don’t believe this is happening.”

“Or they say that if it were not for the ‘illegals,’ we’d not have this problem. I can tell you, the Hispanics are the best students in my school, the hardest working and the best-behaved. I’d put my Hispanic students up against anybody.” But the strong work ethic their parents have often isn’t enough to feed a family, she said; many jobs today don’t pay enough.

Another assumption out there, Meitler said, is that a kid can’t be hungry if he’s overweight. “But many poor children live on little more than the cheap potato chips and soda pop they get from a QuikTrip,” he said. “They may be heavy, but they are also badly nourished, lacking the well-rounded meals I can hand out in a Food Bank packet.”

Hunger affects their schooling, Meitler added. “The hunger takes away their eyes and ears, and they can’t concentrate.”

‘Nowhere to turn’

Poverty not only exists but seems to be growing in schools, according to those who work with homeless students. Steele, the homeless liaison, and Sala Aistrup, a social worker who works with her, have counted 724 homeless children in the schools so far this year, with three more months remaining in the school year.

What that number means, Aistrup said, is that by the end of the school year, she and Steele will probably find more than 1,000 students in the Wichita schools who meet federal school guidelines for homelessness. These children, according to Steele, move around a lot, and live in every imaginable arrangement — motels, homeless shelters, shelters for abused women, relatives’ houses, friends’ houses, friends-of-friends’ houses, and sometimes, rarely, in cars or under bridges.

Many of the homeless students, or the students who have homes but no income to live on, are hungry, “and truly desperate,” Larson said.

On Thursday, at Stanley, Madison Duncan made sure her family would eat this weekend. She stood, with more than 50 other kids, in a line outside Meitler’s office door, and took a packet out of a Food Bank box. Another boy reached in behind her, lifted out two packets, and handed one to his little brother.

Madison, a dimple-cheeked first-grader with blonde hair tied back in a loose bun, looked at the crackers in her packet and grinned.

“Sometimes I eat the food,” she said. “Sometimes I save it.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com