The weekend Backpack Program provided through the Community Services Clearinghouse to area children who otherwise might go without meals over the weekends will continue over the holidays, Rick Foti said last week.
Foti, the Clearinghouse director, said participating children received two food "backpacks" on the last day of school, food intended for each of the two weekends over the winter holidays. For most of the children, a toy was to be included in their backpack, Foti said, adding, "That's pretty neat."
However, over this holiday period, weekday meals for children who depend on school meals to meet their nutrition needs will be harder to find locally.
Last year, for the first time, the Fort Smith School District extended its free lunch program long offered throughout the summers to include the winter holiday break. This year, however, because the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day and New Year's Eve/New Year's Day holidays fall on Monday and Tuesday in each of the two-week break period, there are not enough weekdays left to run the program, said Zena Featherston Marshall, Fort Smith Public Schools communication and community partnerships director.
That program was funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Seamless School Lunch Program, which aims to fill the nutrition gap created by school breaks, particularly for children of low-income families who qualify for free and reduced-price meals during the school year.
Those children make up a larger population than many people realize.
Seventy-one percent of the Fort Smith School District's 14,044 students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
According to Arkansas Department of Education data, many other area districts have large percentages of low-income children qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. For example, 68.61 percent of Clarksville students qualify, 59.52 percent of Van Buren students qualify, 51.23 percent of Lavaca students qualify, 45.4 percent of Charleston students qualify and 35.3 percent of Greenwood students qualify for the meals.
River Valley Regional Food Bank Director Ted Clemons said he is not aware of any agencies offering every weekday feeding programs to fill the holiday nutrition gap for area children. Most of the food bank's agencies are food pantries, although the food bank does have some agencies that offer feeding programs over the summer months, Clemons said.
For state-level policy makers, including Gov. Mike Beebe, that school break-related nutrition gap has been a big issue for several years, Clemons said. Finding a solution to the logistics so far has defeated policy makers, although they continue to seek a solution, he said.
One such issue, Clemons said, is that feeding programs through school breaks are not as feasible for rural school districts as they are for the urban school districts because rural children tend not to live within walking distance and generally lack transportation to the schools offering meal programs. Although Clemons thinks year-round school would go a long way toward resolving that dilemma, he acknowledges that it has not been a popular proposal.
According to a January 2011 online survey conducted by the No Kid Hungry Campaign of Arkansas, 38 percent of school break and after-school feeding program respondents ranked transportation for children as a priority barrier to be overcome to ensure hungry children are fed. The No. 1 barrier for 100 percent of respondents was access to more funding. No. 2 at 70 percent was access to more food. No. 3 at 49 percent was additional cooking or refrigeration equipment. No. 4 at 47 percent was more staff. No. 5 at 44 percent was additional space, and No. 6 at 42 percent was access to more children.
The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, parent to the No Kid Hungry Campaign, wants to end childhood hunger in Arkansas by 2015 by improving access to public and private programs that provide food to families and children in need, by strengthening community infrastructure and systems for getting healthy food to children and by improving families' knowledge about available programs.
It isn't just an Arkansas problem.
A national poll conducted for Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign in November following the presidential election found that 60 percent of the 1,000 voters surveyed said it is more important to fund child nutrition programs than to reduce the national debt. Thirty-four percent of the respondents ranked national debt reduction as more important. The poll conducted jointly by Republican firm McLaughlin and Associates and Democratic firm Freedman Consulting also found that 42 percent of the respondents said they've experienced hunger themselves or know friends or family who have struggled with not having enough to eat.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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