By DAVID GUNTER
SANDPOINT — The bag you buy is empty and, at the same time, full of promise. For the third year, Food For Our Children has teamed up with local grocers to turn this symbolic purchase into cash that gets plowed straight into a program that provides food for children in need.
The fundraiser, which runs through Oct. 11, includes in-store displays at Winter Ridge Natural Foods, Yoke’s, Miller’s Country Store, Super 1 Foods and Safeway. Customers simply pick up one of the colorful FFOC bags near the cash register, where it is scanned and then placed back on the display for the next person to “buy.”
The weeklong drive funds a weekend food program in Bonner County schools, which FFOC originated three years ago when it learned that kids affected by childhood hunger were being assisted, to varying degrees, during the school week, but were left virtually on their own on weekends.
In response, the non-profit formed a coalition with area schools, as well as the Bonner Community Food Bank, local grocery stores and corporate sponsors. Working together, they distributed more than 30,000 food bags to 400-plus local children last year.
“It’s that public sector-private sector commitment that really makes this a success story,” said Karen Lanphear, who serves on the organization’s grocery store committee.
The program covers a broad range of ages, from youngsters attending Sandpoint Head Start, right up through elementary grades, middle school and older students at Lake Pend Oreille High School and the Forrest Bird Charter School.
Even as FFOC builds on its collaborative foundation to gain further traction for the community outreach, there is still much ground to be gained in its effort to let Bonner County residents know that the issue of “food insecurity” is, in fact, a real problem that plagues local school children.
“But we are starting to educate the public about that need,” said FFOC board member Michele Murphree.
“When I first started giving presentations a couple years ago, people said, ‘There’s no childhood hunger issue here.’”
Idaho’s own statistics fly in the face of that notion. According to the state, Idaho has a childhood food insecurity rate of just over 19 percent while, here in Bonner County, that rate is closer to 20 percent — or about 1,600 school children whose lives include a regular questioning of where the next meal is going to come from.
“We’re estimating that one in five kids here don’t have access to food,” said Murphree.
“You can extrapolate that out to kids who are really able to learn instead of worrying about being hungry,” Lanphear added.
The weekend food bags — distributed to kids at the end of the school day on Friday — include easy to prepare foods such as individual servings of cereal, pasta with meat, string cheese, fruit cups, milk and apple juice.
After FFOC achieved its goal of adding schools in Priest River, Priest Lake and Oldtown, the footprint of the weekend food outreach expanded to cover nearly all schools in Bonner County. With the help of area employers and other local organizations, additional schools have been “adopted” so that funds are available for weekend food.
Bonner General Health has been a mainstay in its support of Sandpoint Middle School and Lake Pend Oreille High School, while Sandpoint V.F.W. Post #2453 has adopted Southside Elementary and Litehouse Foods has done the same for Hope Elementary.
According to Lanphear, the grocery store drive — the primary funding source for elementary schools — raised approximately $4,000 in 2016. Awareness of the program as it enters its third year, coupled with enthusiasm and, perhaps, some friendly competition among the grocers involved, points to more money coming in this time around.
“These local grocery stores are right on it and so supportive,” Lanphear said. “They are really going for it this year.”
Encouraged by the results of the public-private partnership that has formed around FFOC, the group now plans to expand its work to include participation from the faith-based community.
Cedar Hills Church has the distinction of being first out of the blocks, having found a perfect opportunity to help its neighboring Kootenai Elementary School, where teachers have been spending their own money to buy healthy snacks such as cheese sticks and granola bars as mid-morning snacks for students in need. But with the cost coming in at close to $300-a-year, they realized the teacher-based financing would only go so far.
That’s when the church stepped in and created a new facet of FFOC’s partnership with the wider community.
“We’re still going strong for weekend food, but Cedar Hills Church is now going to work with other churches to see if they can adopt a school for the mid-morning snacks,” said Lanphear.
“The weekend food program costs thousands of dollars a year and the mid-morning snacks are about $270 per school for the year,” Murphree said. “And both of them are an investment in our kids.”
There’s another corner to this collaborative triangle, one that aims to help “de-stigmatize issues related to food,” these FFOC members said. On that front, Murphree has worked with several local schools over the past few years to establish school gardens, where kids learn to grow food and, in some cases, their cafeterias incorporate the harvest into the school menu.
“It’s all connected in this beautiful way — and it’s growing,” Lanphear said. “Kids who started gardening in kindergarten now know how to grow their own food. It’s become a holistic aspect of the curriculum, teaching kids skills they really need.”
How big the school garden movement becomes over time and how many churches opt to follow Cedar Hills’ lead in adopting schools for the snack program are stories that are still being written. This week, the headline is the food bag drive at grocery stores.
Five bucks might not seem like enough money to make a difference, but that amount — leveraged against the participation of business partners, the food center and schools — feeds an otherwise hungry child over the weekend.
“Five dollars here, $5 there — it all matters,” Lanphear said. “And it all builds up.”
Those interested in supporting Food For Our Children’s annual food bag drive can do so by picking up a bag — or a few of them — at Winter Ridge Natural Foods, Yoke’s, Miller’s Country Store, Super 1 Foods and Safeway from now through Oct. 11. All of the money raised goes to the purchase of weekend food for school children, as the board members pay all administrative costs themselves.
Information: Food For Our Children, foodforourchildren.org