(via Blessings in a Backpack/Facebook)
By Sarah Hall
In the Syracuse City School District, every single student — some 20,623 children — receives free or reduced breakfast, lunch and a snack every weekday.
But at 3 p.m. Friday afternoon, many of those 20,623 children go home to food insecure households where they don’t know where their next meal is coming from until 9 a.m. Monday morning. They join more than 16 million kids in the United States in the same situation.
“When they’re at school, they’re receiving breakfast, lunch, snack, but when they’re not in school, there’s a concern there,” said Rachel Murphy, director of food and nutrition for the SCSD. “I mean, where are they getting their food, how are they getting it? It’s a real big issue.”
According to No Kid Hungry, nationwide, some 3 out of 5 teachers say they have children in their classrooms who come to school hungry. Kids who are regularly hungry in school are unable to concentrate, face poor academic performance and deal with headaches and stomachaches. They receive lower scores on standardized tests and they’re more susceptible to illness. That’s why federal aid programs provide breakfast, lunch and snack programs to schools, as well as feeding programs during summer breaks. But over the weekend, kids are often left on their own.
Fortunately, there are programs that can help. Blessings in a Backpack is a national nonprofit program that works with area churches and organizations to provide bags of food to elementary school kids in need. Each bag contains two breakfast items, two lunch items and two snacks. All are non-perishable and child-friendly and represent three of the four food groups. Sponsors commit to three years with the program at a cost of $100 per child. The nonprofit will ask each new organization to start out with 50 students and work their way up.
Bellevue Heights United Methodist Church has already successfully introduced the program at Delaware Academy in Syracuse, where 107 of the school’s 540 students bring home two meals and two snacks every week. Now, Thee Brotherhood, the men’s group at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Liverpool, has adopted Seymour Dual Language Academy.
Thee Brotherhood is a nondenominational men’s group started at St. Paul’s some time before 1921, though written records don’t exist before that time. It was recently reactivated by several parishioners at St. Paul’s, as well as members of the Liverpool community, to perform acts of service. One of the main goals of that service is to address hunger in the community, and when Pastor Richard Klafehn came to St. Paul’s in August of 2015, he had a suggestion: why not adopt a school and start a Blessings in a Backpack program?
Klafehn had previously been the pastor at three churches in Oswego County that had participated in the program to great success.
“We started in September 2013 serving 100 children, 50 at Leighton Elementary School, Oswego, and 50 at Volney Elementary School, Fulton,” he said. “Two years later in 2015, they were serving an additional 100 children, 50 each at two additional elementary schools, one in each community.”
When he came to St. Paul’s, Klafehn joined Thee Brotherhood and learned of their efforts to serve the community and to address hunger in particular.
“The ministry seemed like a natural fit for the men’s group and the congregation as a whole,” he said. “The congregation was looking to reconnect and serve the community…. and it was worth exploring, so sometime in autumn 2015, I suggested it.”
John Meyer, a member of Thee Brotherhood, said the congregation was wholeheartedly on board, especially after learning more about the program. While they had originally planned to work with the Liverpool Central School District, Meyer said, “God directed us to the city of Syracuse.”
“I think that one of the things that broke my heart was they told us a story of social workers going into some of these homes, and the only food they found was [from] Blessings in a Backpack,” Meyer said. “Children do get meals during the week, but they often go hungry on the weekends. It’s hard to think of right here in our community, and Syracuse is part of our community, it’s 5.7 miles away that children go hungry.”
Jean Brown was struck by the same thought when she read an article a while back on poverty in the city.
“It said that over 50 percent of Syracuse’s children are poor,” Brown said. “I had no idea.”
Brown, who lives in Syracuse and is a member of Bellevue Heights United Methodist Church, said she had a hard time reconciling the city she’d grown up in with the one painted in this article, which also noted that median income in the city was barely more than half that of the rest of the state.
“I couldn’t even imagine all of these children were not being provided for in the most basic ways, which was horrible,” she said. “It bothered me so badly. I couldn’t just consign it to the ‘ain’t it awful’ pile and go on.”
A former teacher herself, Brown wondered about the connection between poverty, particularly nutrition, and education. She reached out to nearby Delaware Academy and ultimately spoke to the school’s social worker about bringing Blessings in a Backpack to the school.
“I told her that I thought maybe I could ask my church to come up with money to sponsor 50 students for three years to get food during the school year,” Brown said. “She thought for a while and said, ‘Probably no.’ She said, “We have 520 and all of them are in the same situation. Everyone in the whole Syracuse school district gets free lunches. They have siblings. They would know that some people are getting food and some people aren’t.’”
Ultimately, the social worker and the principal at Delaware decided that it would be better for the neediest students to benefit from the program than none, and Brown worked with Robinson Memorial to set up the program. About 40 parishioners agreed to sponsor a child for $100 a year for three years. Since the beginning of the school year, with help from Marcellus First Presbyterian Church and Robinson Memorial Presbyterian Church, the church has been able to take on an additional 57 children. Byrne Dairy has also donated coupons for milk and yogurt, which the school’s social worker adds to the bags after volunteers from the church deliver them to the school Thursday afternoons.
“Our church’s vision statement was, ‘We are called to share and extend the love of Christ,’ and we think this is a good way to do it,” Brown said. “Certainly, Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep and feed my lambs.’ These are some of the poorest lambs we’ve got in the country.”
SCSD Food and Nutrition Director Murphy knows that’s true. That’s why she’s so glad to see another school signed up for Blessings in a Backpack.
“I think Blessings in a Backpack is a perfect example of trying to address the need, working with community partners to bring opportunity into the school to bridge the gap of hunger between Friday when they leave school to Monday when they return,” Murphy said.
All of the logistics — finances, food delivery, packaging, et cetera — are handled by the church volunteers.
“It’s is a nice setup, because Blessings in a Backpack is kind of like an off-branch operation,” Murphy said. “They are not directly tied into the church that is raising money to go ahead and participate, and they are not tied to us.”
The national program, as well as limited resources, restrict the number of students to 50 per school to start — St. Paul’s with start with 50 at Seymour in the 2017-18 school year, as Bellevue Heights UMC did at Delaware last year — but the need is much greater, meaning school administrators must decide who gets to bring home the food.
“It’s hard,” Murphy admitted. “The social worker at Delaware Elementary, who is very connected with the families, has identified select families that have a very significant hunger need and works with them to distribute to those families. So it’s kind of just really customized interactive sort of model that we’re looking at for Delaware, and it’s on a personal level because she knows the families quite well.”
Meanwhile, the hope is that more people and more organizations will sign on to help provide meals for kids who need them. Murphy said she’d love it if there could be a Blessings in a Backpack program in every Syracuse elementary school.
“One of the things that keeps you going is seeing the small changes and the big impacts in children who are receiving a balanced meal on a daily basis, their improved academic performance, growth, physical health… having a good foundation and building blocks to grow healthier and stronger as adults,” Murphy said. “That’s how you do it — one small change at a time, one child at a time, one meal at a time.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.