A child’s chance for a bright tomorrow starts with getting enough food to eat today. But in America, 1 in 6 children may not know where they will get their next meal. For the more than 12 million kids in the U.S. facing hunger, getting the energy they need to learn and grow can be a daily challenge.
The long-term vision of Montgomery Area Food Bank’s Child Hunger Strategy is to reduce food insecurity among households with children. Our focus is to reach children through families during the times they are most likely to face food insecurity. Because low-income children often receive free or reduced-price meals during school, we focus our efforts on reaching kids when school is out and most frequently indirectly. This includes engagement just prior to weekends, during summer vacation and year-round interaction with their families.
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MAFB operates three program models: our Mobile Pantry, Exercise, Nutrition and Diet Program, our F.O.R.K. or School Pantry Program and our direct support of a cadre of partner agencies, which have a primary focus on operating Backpack Programs. This three-pronged approach allows us to feed as many children as possible with a conscious attempt to ensure social (from fellow students) stigma avoidance.
Mobile Pantry (MP)/Exercise, Nutrition, and Diet (END) Project (MP/END):
Children facing hunger often grow up in a family where a parent or parents also face hunger. Kids who don’t get enough to eat - especially during their first three years - begin life at a serious disadvantage. According to a recent study 84% of all households Feeding America® serves report buying the cheapest food - instead of healthy food - in order to save off hunger.
According to VOICES for Alabama’s Children, many of the communities MAFB serves are defined as “food deserts”, meaning that the families in these areas have limited or no access to healthy, affordable food. “Over 1.8 million Alabama residents—including nearly half a million children - live in communities without grocery stores. Far too many families live in these places where fresh, healthy food is hard to come by, and where processed, unhealthy products are the only viable option. This scenario places Alabamians at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses.” www.thefoodtrust.org/uploads/media_items/al-reportfinalweb.original.pdf
Each MP/END delivery distributes 10,000-15,000 pounds of food at one time and in one place to a community in desperate need of assistance. In addition, 65-75% of each delivery consists of fresh produce and nutritious food items, providing a valuable healthy resource and a primary safety net for struggling families in food deserts as well as hard to serve remote rural areas. In response to the catastrophic rate of diet-related, preventable disease currently devastating Alabama’s families, we also distribute nutrition education materials to each household at our MP/END Project deliveries.
Our Exercise, Nutrition, & Diet (END) Program offers nutrition education based on fundamentals established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to those receiving assistance through our programs. In order to expand our outreach, this program also offers training for our agencies, so they can to teach classes to those they serve.
”For our Remarkable Kids (FORK): In September 2016, MAFB initiated a Pilot School Pantry Program to directly address Child Hunger needs within our service area. As a growing pilot program our Feeding Our Remarkable Kids (FORK) Program originally worked with three Montgomery City Public Schools to provide chronically hungry children and their families with ongoing assistance and has recently expanded to seven schools.
Shortly after the first of 2017, our evaluations indicated the program had provided an average of 9,500 pounds of food to roughly 200 critically hungry children and their families per month. “The program means a lot to me,” said Angela Calvin, who has received assistance through the FORK program for herself and her teenage daughter. “Towards the middle or end of the month, we can always come here to get what we need to make it through the month. The fruits, veggie, and meats are also very nice to receive.”
The FORK Program features an experienced, successful agency being afforded the opportunity to adopt a school in their community and focus on children identified by the school administration as a student, which displays immediate need. “Southlawn Elementary is right in the community that we live in,” said James Potts, Southlawn Baptist Church’s FORK Program Agency co-coordinator. “So, this gives us a chance do so something good for the community as a whole. I think this program is a great idea, and I am proud to be a part of it.
“It gives us an opportunity to get to know families a little more personally and to understand the struggle that they are going through. We’re so glad to be able to provide them with enough food to be able to fill in the gaps with what they need.”
Despite having a wealth of experience in MAFB’s Mobile Pantry Program, being part of a Pilot Program from the very beginning, didn’t afford Southlawn Baptist Church FORK Program many lessons to learn from especially considering the differences of the size and approaches of the two programs. “Organization is key,” said a definitive Potts. “We’re not only trying to get the small things to these families, but we are also providing them with more substantial things (fresh produce) that they never thought they would be able to get from the food bank.
“One of the most rewarding things for me is to be somewhere out in public and have a child come up to me and say, ‘thank you for the food that you sent home with my parents,’” said Potts with a thoughtful grin coming to his face. “A lot of kids know my name even though I don’t know theirs. It feels great to know that we are doing something positive for our community.”
Twenty-two million children receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program – as do children on the majority of the MAFB service area. For many of these children, school meals may be the only meals they eat. However, what happens when they go home for the weekend – or during he summer?
There are literally tens of thousands of backpack programs operating across or nation. And, usually out of necessity each program has nuanced differences in the way things are done, because to ensure efficiency, it’s readily conceded one program structure or size - does not fit all.
With this in mind, MAFB has adopted the approach of support a cadre of approximately 30 separate local partner agencies’, which focus almost exclusively on providing nutritional assistance to our students and their families via backpack programs, while the students are not in school. This decided approach has resulted in the promotion of an incubation of ideas, new processes, lessons learned and best practices.
BackPack programs in the MAFB service area have a wealth of knowledge, practical and proven examples as well as opportunities for mentoring to draw upon. New local partner agencies contemplating a backpack program startup, do not have to re-invent the wheel or start from scratch. They have a cadre of experienced operators executing various business models to consult with as they decide upon the initial structure of their own effort. Just as important, are the lessons learned and best practices, which can frequently mean the difference between a new effort’s sustainability or failure.