One in five children in Bartholomew County may not know where their next meal is coming from.
That’s nearly 4,000 local children, according to 2013 KIDS COUNT data.
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. Superintendent John Quick said educators see those children on Monday mornings, when they line up in the school cafeteria for the first breakfast they have had in days.
They also saw them this winter when cold temperatures and icy conditions left schools closed for days at a time, leaving some without a nutritious meal during that same stretch.
“This hunger issue is not well known,” said Teresa Heiny, the district’s director of elementary education.
But teachers and principals see it in students who struggle as their stomachs growl.
A 2005 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found even marginal food security puts children at risk for health problems, developmental delay and impaired school performance.
“We like to make sure that every child comes to school ready to learn, and children can’t do that if they’re hungry,” said Nancy Millspaugh, the district’s food service director. “Our end of it is to make sure children have breakfast available if they haven’t had a chance to get that at home and to make sure they have a healthy lunch in the middle of the school day.”
The national school lunch and breakfast programs make those meals free or discounted to families in need, and some schools also qualify for a free after-school snack program.
About 42 percent of BCSC students participated in the free and reduced-price lunch program last year, and Quick said the number that qualify is larger. The program is opt-in, and high school students are less likely to make the effort — whether it’s because of a stigma attached with income-based discounts or because they would rather leave campus for lunch.
The Summer Food Service Program, which will continue this year, served 4,789 free meals in June and 3,887 in July plus in October during fall break.
But what about weeknight dinners? Weekend meals?
With the help of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana and community partners, the district has established several programs to address the out-of-school nutrition needs of the most vulnerable students.
Food pantries have been established at Columbus East and Columbus North high schools, and the local BackSack Program sends meals home with 514 students in Grades K to 6 every weekend.
Eddie Oliver, programs manager at Gleaners, said the food bank partners with schools because they are the focal point of a child’s life.
“It’s a trusted face in the community,” he said. “It’s the kind of partner that is going to give someone like Gleaners the type of buy-in and community investment we need to reach vulnerable food-insecure children.”
Tucked into closets at the high schools are cases of nonperishable food, toiletries and a freezer full of meat.
There’s chicken noodle soup, ravioli, Ramen noodles, canned tuna and bags of cereal. On the other side of the closet is an entire wall’s length of toilet paper, as well as diapers, soap, toothpaste and shampoo.
All of those items and more are free to BCSC students and their immediate families — no questions asked.
Gleaners provides all necessary storage equipment and a monthly credit limit to cover the grocery bill, and the schools work with the families.
The E Street Food Pantry at East and Bull Dog Pantry at North are open every other week on alternating Fridays.
Rochelle House, a counselor at East, said the pantries make a difference.
The East pantry began piloting the Gleaners School-Based Pantry Program last April, when about 20 families took advantage of the pantry. The North program began in January.
House said 62 families walked away with food after a Feb. 28 session.
There are other benefits, too, Oliver said.
Based on a survey of coordinators at the 41 area school sites, 78 percent said the program has increased parent engagement.
“When you have parents and family members coming in to access resources from the school, that’s an opportunity to engage about performance and home life,” he said. “This kind of functions as a bridge between school and community in a lot of ways.”
Some sites also reported the pantry has helped school attendance, and nearly all sites found the program is significantly improving the long-term hunger issue.
There are no income requirements or referrals required, but House said some students still hesitate to visit.
“We find that high school students are sometimes uncomfortable if somebody knows they’re coming to the pantry, so we try to keep it very noninvasive,” House said. “If they express a need, we’ll bring them down here, even if it’s not open hours.”
She said she hopes students will become more comfortable with visiting the pantry.
There are 64 hours between the end of school Friday and the start of school Monday mornings — a long time to go without a balanced meal. But some parents work all weekend, and other families are trying to stretch money between paychecks.
Oliver recalled a story he heard about a girl in Bartholomew County who was living with her father in the basement of a family friend’s house.
“The friends would always get angry if food went missing from the kitchen, so she didn’t eat unless she was at one of her friend’s houses,” he said. “The BackSack was her food that she could keep to herself, and she wouldn’t have to worry about getting from someone else.”
Gleaners trained staff members at BCSC to identify students who face similar situations over the weekend, and they have referred 514 students to the BackSack Program this year.
All BackSacks are assembled and delivered by volunteers at Cummins Midrange Engine Plant and Fuel Systems Plant, and the Cummins Foundation has provided financial support to the program locally.
A Gleaners survey found the BackSack Program has helped increase academic performance, attention and attendance in more than half of participating schools, and Heiny said teachers here have noted improvement.
Although the district has several nonprofit organizations and local companies working with them to address hunger in the community, Quick said, there’s one law that could make those efforts more important in the future.
The General Assembly passed a bill last year that uses the number of families participating in the textbook-assistance program rather than the free and reduced-price lunch program to measure poverty in schools. Those numbers will be used to calculate how much additional funding the state will give schools to help educate the most vulnerable students.
Quick said the window to enroll in textbook assistance is shorter, so families who wait to sign up might not be included in the count — even if they are among the most poor. That could mean as much as $100 less in funding per student, he estimated.
“Our politicians don’t believe the families are struggling as much as they are,” he said. “It’s kind of like you need to prove you’re poor, so we need to come after this from a lot of different angles.”