All photos Anne Larkin/Catalyst
Five years ago, 37 percent of kids in Sarasota County were eligible for free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches. That number has now climbed to 50 percent. “We went from one in three, which was high, to one in two,” said Jill Collins, Director of Nutrition Education at All Faiths Food Bank. All Faiths, one of Florida’s 17 food banks, covers three counties and provides not just foodstuffs to the community but also a variety of educational programs and other innovative forms of aid. Since the economy has gone sour, the food bank business has been bittersweetly booming. Last year, All Faiths distributed three million pounds of food — this year, they expect closer to five million.
Food need has grown massively in the community and All Faiths has been not only keeping up with that need, but also supplementing calories with education. All Faiths runs three educational programs, aimed at mainly elementary school and younger children from low-income families. The hopes of the programs are twofold: to prevent kids from going hungry and educate in order to reduce levels of obesity and unhealthiness.
One of the main educational programs that Collins facilitates through All Faiths is Growing Healthy Kids, a preschool program that aims to improve kids’ health, especially those who may be unsure of from where their next meal will come. The locations are chosen according to which preschools have the highest number of children receiving scholarships, indicating that their parents are unable to pay for childcare. The program has been expanding every year since its inception.
“From a nutrition standpoint, a research standpoint,” Collins explained, “if you hit a kid before they turn six, you have so much more success in changing their lifelong outcomes, in terms of behaviors and food thoughts and feelings.” The Growing Healthy Kids program has been instituted in over 70 preschools over the past five years, providing classes with a seven-month program covering everything from the food pyramid to gardening to exercise. The program, which is funded primarily by private philanthropy, relies on volunteer teachers who commit to the seven-month program, each assigned to a specific class for the duration.
“You go once a month to the same preschool,” Collins said. “The kids get to know you, and not only are you there teaching about food and nutrition, fitness, gardening and healthy snacks … but you’re also a positive role model because a lot of these kids come from pretty broken homes where they may not have a good adult role model.”
While All Faiths Food Bank dreamt up and developed the Growing Healthy Kids program itself, another major program, Cooking Matters, is a nationwide initiative. “Share Our Strength [the founder of Cooking Matters] is a nonprofit that’s really focused on making sure no child goes hungry and they do that by trying to educate families about how to eat healthy on a food stamp budget,” Collins explained. There’s only one Cooking Matters location per state, and although Florida’s is in Fort Lauderdale, All Faiths operates their own satellite program.
Cooking Matters endeavors to educate children about not just nutrition but nutrition in action, with each class divided between a lesson on a component of the food pyramid and a related recipe — for example, after the fruit lesson, strawberry smoothies. The vegetable day, veggie pizzas. For whole grains, handmade whole-wheat pretzels.
“We learn how to stay away from foods that aren’t good,” one eight-year old, pig-tailed mini-chef explained. “Like … things that are just full of sugar.”
“And oil,” another added. “But I think a little bit of oil, like just one little amount once a year, would be okay.”
Just like Growing Healthy Kids, Cooking Matters classes are generally put on in low-income neighborhoods. “We pinpoint those places that serve low-income families,” explained food bank intern Elyse Burgher. “Many high-income families will already know much of the information we cover, [and may] already be able to afford those [healthier] groceries … so we try to target those who might be uneducated about nutrition and healthy lifestyles. It’s worthwhile. We’re really helping people.” The classes use ingredients that are easily attainable on a restricted or food stamp budget to create wholesome meals. The burgeoning chefs get to take home the ingredients for the recipe after class each day with the intention of sharing their new nutritional prowess with their families. Both the cooking classes and the broader Growing Healthy Kids program have been very successful in the sense that pre- and post- assessments have consistently revealed a jump in nutritional knowledge and healthy food choices and behaviors in students.
The third low-income, kid-oriented nutrition program facilitated by the food bank is Backpack Kids, a remedy for the hungry weekend during which school lunch is unavailable to kids in need. Started in 2008 by Feeding America, another nationwide nonprofit, Collins and All Faiths has had great success with this particular program.
“The nutritionist in me came out and we make sure they have at least three protein entrees, three and a half servings of vegetables, two fruit items, fresh fruit every other week, breakfast items and healthy snacks,” Collins said. Schools are similarly chosen for this program — first Collins considered all the Title One schools (schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families), then researched what percentage of kids were receiving free or reduced meals at those schools — an indicator of the number of families who are potentially at risk for going hungry.
Collins happily noted that there’s been little stigmatization of Backpack Kids — rather, it’s been quite the opposite in every school. “Kids who aren’t getting the backpacks want to get them,” she said. “As soon as they get their backpack they run down the hall and see what’s inside — they get so excited.” Evaluations of the program completed by principals, guidance counselors and teachers as well as parents and kids themselves all report no embarrassment associated with the backpacks. Indeed, when a Gocio Elementary teacher asked a student what his favorite part of school was, he replied “Fridays, ‘cause my sisters and I get those backpacks and I know we’ll have something to eat.”
The Backpack Kids program has grown into an encouraging manifestation of the drive to keep kids fed in the community. After one woman came into All Faiths hoping to help but without any idea how, she became the first to start a new system of “adopting” schools, in which a neighborhood or church or even just a group of friends raises money for a particular school and then puts together the backpacks themselves weekly. The cost is just $2.50 per child, per week, or $96 to ensure that one child has food for an entire school year. Collins recently received a grant to expand the thriving program and is hoping to stretch both up into middle schools and out in Arcadia, where many struggling migrant families live.
All of these programs have grown significantly over the past few years, due in part to their successful reception, but also out of a growing need.
“The demographics have changed,” Collins pointed out. “A lot of the folks that need help now … maybe four years ago they were middle income families with both parents working. And now they just can’t make ends meet.”
Last year there were five schools with the backpack program, serving 250 kids. This year there are 10 schools and 662 kids receiving a pack full of food every week. The YMCA Schoolhouse Link program, which provides assistance to displaced families and kids, has over 1,000 kids documented as homeless this year. And they estimate that it’s closer to double that number — another thousand homeless kids living in the area without the assistance of the YMCA and other programs.
Our nation’s need is growing: in Sarasota alone, 2,000 kids are homeless. Those that never expected they’d worry about hunger are now in need of two million pounds of food. All Faiths provides for the community by filling cupboards and stomachs as well as by building a foundation for a healthier community. Teaching young children about the benefits of whole grains and vegetables, the ease of keeping a small garden, the importance of exercise, may likely result in a healthier population. The groups say that acquainting kids with the kitchen is crucial, getting them intimately involved with the food they eat will make for more conscientious eaters and cooks — kids who will grow up to prepare nutritious meals rather than turn to the unhealthy simplicity of fast food.
And all of these programs fall under the umbrella of the food bank’s mission: eradicating hunger in our community, our state, our nation.