Bartholomew County educators’ primary focus is teaching students, but what many people may not know is that they’re also actively addressing a significant social problem.
That is student hunger.
One in five children — about 4,000 — in the county may not know where their next meal is coming from.
The impact of that statistic on schools is that studies have shown when students go hungry it impairs their school performance. It also puts them at risk for health problems and developmental delay.
However, educators and some volunteers are to be commended for local measures that, in addition to a national meal program, are helping students overcome hunger and academic issues.
Students from families in need can get free and reduced breakfasts and lunches through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. About 42 percent of BCSC students — although more were eligible — participated in this program last year. This program takes care of 10 meals through the week, but that’s not enough help.
Concern remains for students’ weekday suppers and weekend meals, because parents are working and families are trying to stretch their dollars on all household needs between paychecks.
Columbus North and East high schools have helped fill those voids by establishing food pantries, with the help of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana. The E Street Food Pantry at East started in April 2013. The Bull Dog pantry at North began in January. They’re open every other week on alternating Fridays. The pantries provide meat, nonperishable food and toiletries free to BCSC students and their immediate families — no questions asked.
The BackSack program sends meals home to 514 students in kindergarten through Grade 6 every weekend. Meals are assembled and delivered by volunteers at Cummins Midrange Engine Plant and Fuel Systems Plant. Cummins Foundation has supported the program financially.
BackSack and the high school food pantries aren’t the only local measures. The Summer Food Service Program, which will be continued this year, served 4,789 free meals in June and 3,887 in July plus in October during fall break.
What educators have learned from these local measures is that:
Students have shown improvement academically, in attendance and with attention in class.
Parent engagement has increased.
Long-term hunger issues are improving.
The percentage of BCSC students eligible for free and reduced lunches and the number free meals provided by the food pantries and other meal programs demonstrates that many families in Bartholomew County struggle to make ends meet, and meals are sometimes skipped to save money. That’s a long-term problem that won’t be solved easily.
However, educators and volunteers are rising to the challenge with programs that are helping keep students fed and engaged academically.