By Tina Dirmann
BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer
It’s a heartbreaking fact that kids in our state go hungry each evening — sometimes each weekend. That’s because too many of them, with parents teetering along the poverty line, exist on no other meal other than what they get at school. After that? Meals can be sporadic. And sparse.
No one knows that better than the folks with the Food Bank of Central Louisiana, which operates Kids Cafe. Each week, Kids Cafe offers roughly 40 elementary school kids a variety of after school services, including games, tutoring, gardening lessons, and, yes, a hot meal.
But the program only runs four days a week (Monday — Thursday). The rest of the week?
But they do know their kids show-up hungry every day. Kids Cafe opened several months ago with a roster of 28 children officially signed-up for the program. But as the weeks passed, the roster of regular faces grew and grew. Today, as many as 40 kids show up, hoping to be fed. After all, the Kids Cafe center is located next door to a set of low-income housing units. Often, those neighborhood kids stop by, signed-up or not, and hope for some play time and a hot meal.
“And whenever we have extra kids show up, I tell the staff, never let a kid go hungry. Never,” Wright-Velez said.
And that’s when the idea struck staffers — if this is the situation during the week, what are these kids facing on the weekends?
So the backpack program was born. Every Thursday, the kids get a backpack filled with peanut butter, granola bars, cereals, soups, ravioli — things that are shelf stable, easy to handle, nutritious, and tastes good (these are kids, after all — a bag-o-broccoli would undoubtedly end up in the garbage). This is stuff, kids can fix on their own, without the help of an adult.
“And there’s usually plenty in there, because there’s probably a sibling at home who could be going hungry too,” Wright-Velez said.
Why backpacks? Because there’s no stigma to carrying home a canvas book bag. Other kids can’t tell if it’s filled with school work or sustenance.
“Because kids can be cruel,” Wright-Velez said. “If we just gave the kids a sack of groceries to carry home, other kids may make fun of them and they’d end up tossing the food away instead of carrying it home. But the backpacks have no markings of any kind. They can blend in without any stigma to worry about.”
Each kids is assigned a backpack, which they must bring back on Thursdays, the last day of Kids Cafe for the week. Staffers fill up the sack with food staples and the kids carry it all home.
The first round of multi-colored backpacks went out this Thursday, in fact.
“Are those for us,” the kids murmured excitedly when they saw the pile of backpacks before them.
And once they found out they take home the backpacks, and they were also filled with food… Well, the smiles were were enough to give anybody the warm and fuzzes all over. And when we talked to them about the foodie backpack, no one wanted to cop to needing the food, personally. But they were all glad their “friends” would no long go hungry.
“It’s good because some kids don’t have enough food for the weekend,” Prentiuna Sapp echoed.
“I hope it’s food from all the food groups,” Desmond Duncan, fifth grade. (Okay, someone paid her to make that statement, right?)
Kids Cafe staffers say they always wanted a weekend food program to be part of their service. But, as always, funding was an issue. Then Food Bank leaders realized that their spending for Kids Cafe, made possible through a grant from our own Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana program, was running under budget. And, you know? Apparently, it takes a mere $150 per child to feed them for an entire year’s worth of weekends. And suddenly they realized, they could do this. They could make this program happen.
But, adds Wright-Velez, it was actually a child over the Christmas holiday that made her more determined than ever to kick off the backpack food program as soon as she could this 2015 year…
“I really felt the urgency during our Christmas party this year,” she said. “We handed out gifts to the kids. And I remember this one child was so distraught because a piece of tissue paper in his gift bag was going to be thrown away, and he was like, ‘ No, no, that’s mine!’ And someone told me, ‘Look, you don’t understand — this bag is their Christmas. It’s the only Christmas they’re going to have.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, we need to figure out how to do more for these kids.’ ”
We’d say that pledge is on it’s way to being fulfilled.
Just ask beaming first grader Dyonshai Duncan. Clutching her shiny new backpack, Dyonshai exclaimed, “This will keep our bellies full and make us strong and healthy!”