SANDPOINT — If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Food For Our Children should be feeling highly complimented right about now.
Founded in the spring of 2015, the local organization has managed to build an outreach network that now provides weekend food for kids at Kootenai, Farmin Stidwell, Northside, Hope, Southside and Sagle elementary schools, as well as Lake Pend Oreille High School, Sandpoint Middle School, Sandpoint Head Start and the West Bonner County School District.
As the 2018-’19 school year launches, FFOC is ramping up for its annual fundraiser to be held next month, where grocery shoppers can grab an empty “prop” bag near the checkout stand, have it scanned as part of their purchase and make a small but meaningful donation to the cause. Almost as soon as the group first mounted the fund drive in stores, other organizations were quick to follow suit with fundraising bags of their own.
Speaking of following, the non-profit has attracted its own over the past three years, with all manner of businesses and individuals volunteering to throw their shoulders to the wheel. A list of partners on the FFOC website points to Evans Brothers Coffee Roasters, Sandpoint VFW Post #2453, Litehouse, Inc., the Sandpoint Center, Mountain West Bank, Washington Trust Bank, Columbia Bank, Coldwell Banker Schneidmiller Realty joining forces with the Bonner Community Food Bank, Lake Pend Oreille School District #84, Newport Hospital and Bonner General Health to keep children from going hungry on weekends.
In some cases, these partners have “adopted” a school for which they pack and deliver food. In the case of Bonner General Health, the employer has stepped up to adopt three schools since it first became involved in 2015.
“We started with Sandpoint Middle School and Lake Pend Oreille High School,” said Misty Robertson, chief nursing officer at BGH. “Since then, we also added Sagle Elementary.”
Program-wide, FFOC last year delivered more than 18,000 bags of food to children in need in Bonner County, expanding upon what originally was known as the “food backpack” program to reach more kids and provide a more accessible way to ensure they get something healthy to eat over the weekend.
According to FFOC, more than 50 percent of students in many Bonner County schools qualify for the free- or reduced-price meal program that currently provides them with breakfast and lunch at school. In response to requests from several principals in the district, the organization also funded a mid-morning snack program under the premise that students who aren’t thinking about being hungry are more likely to learn in the classroom.
Once Friday rolled around and those weekday meals dropped out of the equation, many of those same kids used to go home to weekends with families who often wondered where the next meal was going to come from. Known in official circles as “childhood food insecurity,” one in six of Idaho’s children are food insecure — nearly 73,000 of them for a food insecurity rate of 16.7 percent — based on the latest report from the Idaho Food Bank.
Closer to home, Bonner County’s food insecurity rate is 19.4 percent, making it the 11th-highest of the state’s 44 counties. FFOC is working to turn the dial to reduce those stats. Having met its goal of serving all interested schools across the county, the group also cleared the bar on another incentive, which was to raise its initial investment of $4 per food bag in the year it was founded to the $5-$6 per bag it spends today.
At Bonner General Health, the program is so popular that employees literally have to take a number and wait in line to help pack food for Sagle Elementary and Lake Pend Oreille High School, where, last year, 1,028 and 1,770 bags were distributed, respectively.
“We have our CEO stuffing bags with our maintenance guys — it’s the full gamut,” said Robertson, adding that about 30 employees take part on days when FFOC deliveries are being prepared. “If you don’t get there on time, you’ve probably missed it. We actually have to schedule people now, or we’d have too many.”
The number of students receiving food at Sandpoint Middle School — the third school served by BGH — has been considerably lower, though progress is being made on that front, as well. Calling it a “vulnerable age,” Robertson said the stigma associated with poverty and hunger has kept potentially hundreds of middle school students from taking food bags home for the weekend. So prevalent is this demographic aversion that Sandpoint High School has always opted out of taking part in the program.
“FFOC tells me that about 40 percent of kids at the middle school and high school would qualify for assistance,” Robertson said. “The need is still there, but the older they get, the more reluctant they are to ask for help.”
“At Lake Pend Oreille High School, there is no stigma,” said Roz Holland, who sits on the board of directors for FFOC. “But you go into the middle school and a lot of kids would rather do without than be identified as needing help.”
A pilot effort at SMS appears to be changing that. Called the Pantry Program, it enlists students from the school’s Leadership Club to manage inventory, pack, distribute and keep track of the number of bags going out. Bonner General Health delivers the food in bulk, based on a menu provided by SMS students. On Friday, bags are stored discretely in a teacher’s classroom, where students can pick them up in privacy at the end of the day.
“Last year was our first year, and it was a learning experience for all of us,” Holland said. “The number of kids receiving bags almost doubled, but we have refined the process and hope to achieve even more participation this year.”
At first, only a couple hundred SMS students took part, with that figure climbing to about 720 following the start of the pilot program last year. Having kids in charge of the process seems to be helping. And giving them a voice in menu choices, Robertson said, has made the program even more appealing.
“Our dietitian is involved and the food is dietitian-approved, but we also realize we have to have things that kids will eat,” she explained. “We’ve learned with this age group that they like a little variety and they like to have a voice in the food choices.”
So, that means a lot of Oreos going to the middle school?
“They’re not asking for Oreos,” Robertson said. “It’s surprising — it’s usually something like mandarin oranges.”
Although most partners make some type of financial donation in combination with their volunteer labor — those that adopt a particular school usually invest a bit more — the bulk of paying for the program is borne by FFOC, which works closely with the Bonner Community Food Bank to combine and leverage food buying power through Second Harvest in Spokane.
For employees of Bonner General Health, Food For Our Children is easy to get behind because of its impact on the lives of kids. It’s that same attribute that ties into one of the medical center’s community objectives — that of improving the health of children.
“It’s great that this helps kids so directly and we appreciate that FFOC has no overhead whatsoever,” Robertson said, adding that all money raised goes to buy food for students. “Food — or the lack of it — really affects their physical health and ability to learn. That’s why we’re involved.”
The Food For Our Children grocery bag fundraiser will be held at local grocers in October, with the exact dates to be announced soon.
For more information on the program or to donate to the cause, go online to foodforourchildren.org.