By DAVID GUNTER
SANDPOINT — Barely two years old, the local non-profit Food For Our Children has tackled two major goals. The group, founded in the late spring of 2015, has put the issue of childhood hunger in Bonner County in the spotlight. More important, it has done something about it.
Launched as a pilot program in area schools in the summer of its inception year, FFOC immediately aligned with the Bonner Community Food Center, followed in short order by the involvement of Bonner General Health. The enthusiastic buy-in of school administration and staff carried the day for the cause.
FFOC provides funding for weekend food bags for children who would otherwise go without on those days when they don’t have access to meals at school. At some schools, the program impacts a large percentage of overall enrollment.
“We have sustained about 20-25 percent of our student population that is currently being served by FFOC,” said Erik Olson, principal at Farmin-Stidwell Elementary. “It provides a sense of relief to know that these kids are taking home the food they need. There are certain kids within our school that we all worry about due to their home and economic situation. Knowing that they are fed over the weekends helps us all sleep better.”
According to the non-profit’s executive director, Dennis Pence, the effort has made great strides since the group was formed.
“Approximately 525 of our children received weekend food bags (this year),” he said. “Just two years ago, that number was only 170.”
At this writing, the program serves students at Northside, Hope, Kootenai, Farmin-Stidwell, Southside and Sagle elementaries, as well as those at Sandpoint Middle School, Lake Pend Oreille High School and young children attending Head Start. That marks a substantial jump, compared with the days before FFOC entered the picture.
“Prior to the formation of Food For Our Children, we had been able to serve three schools and admittedly, it had been difficult to consistently secure funding to expand and, most importantly, to ensure that we sustained the program as we grew,” said Barbara Oler, executive assistant at Bonner Community Food Center. “With the conception of and partnership that we now have with FFOC, the results speak for themselves. The program has grown and helps more students than ever in our community.”
Based on distribution statistics, what once was known as the weekend backpack program accounted for thousands of bags of food going home with needy kids during the just-completed 2016-‘17 school year.
“This year, we will have seen the weekend food program for our kids expand to approximately 20,000 bags of food for East Bonner County,” said Pence. “It is a fantastic number. So much effort by so many people put supplemental weekend food into the hands of our kids who needed it.”
Where the food center puts its focus on supplying bags for most of the elementary students affected, Bonner General Health is tasked with doing the same for older kids — though the hospital staff also has jumped in to help at the elementary level.
“We started with a financial donation, but wanted to play a bigger role in feeding our children,” said BGH chief executive officer Sheryl Rickard. “The first year, we ‘adopted’ the middle school, but because there were so few children receiving the weekend food, we ‘adopted’ (Lake Pend Oreille High School), as well. This year, we also took on Sagle Elementary.”
While FFOC funding acts as the fuel in the tank, this philanthropic engine wouldn’t run at all without the involvement of staff from the food center, medical campus and schools. Luckily, the nature of the project draws people in quite naturally.
“We are fortunate at Farmin-Stidwell to have a great volunteer force that distributes and organizes the food for our children,” Olson said. “These volunteers are relentless in their pursuit to distribute food bags to our students every week. The food bags are prepared prior to coming to school and our volunteers count out and distribute them to each classroom on Friday.”
Prior to that distribution, the volunteers at the food center prepare the bags — which now go by the name of Bite 2 Go — and deliver them to each of the elementary schools being served.
“The Bonner Community Food Center purchases the Bite 2 Go packs from Second Harvest with funds that are donated, raised, or reimbursed by the FFOC program,” Oler said. “We travel to Spokane to pick up the packs, store them on site, enlist volunteers to inspect and separate packs by school and either directly drop the packs off to schools or enlist volunteers to do so.”
At BGH, the process has been tweaked to account for the age of students it serves, Rickard pointed out.
“We recognized that the food that was going to the elementary schools was not going to be substantial enough for the older children, “ she said. “We wanted it to be as nutritious as possible and also be filling. Our chief nursing officer, Misty Robertson, worked with our dietician and then went to work trying to figure out where to buy the food.
“We originally thought that we could buy food through the hospital but quickly realized that it had to be single servings, which wasn’t really available,” Rickard continued. “So Misty and other employees make weekly trips to Wal-mart and Costco to get the food.”
In keeping with Farmin-Stidwell’s experience, both the hospital and the food center have had no problem enlisting volunteers to ready the food for delivery.
“Our staff loves being a part of the packing process,” Rickard said. “Because of the large number of staff members that come to help pack the bags, we have it down to about a 15-minute process.”
“The staff is fully engaged in the Bite 2 Go program, as they understand the importance of keeping small bellies full and minds open to things other than hunger and the stress associated with it,” said Oler. “A large majority of those who work and volunteer at the BCFC have known hunger at some point in their lives. We take pride in being able to help eradicate hunger, especially for the most vulnerable in our community.”
But it’s the arrival of those bags every Friday that generates the most excitement, according to the Farmin-Stidwell principal, as students know they’ll have enough food the bridge the gap over the weekend.
What would things look like without FFOC in the picture?
“I think that the issue of childhood food insecurity would get pushed back into the shadows,” Olson said. “Having this program places this need front and center.”
To learn more about Food For Our Children or to make a tax-deductible donation to the program, go online to foodforourchildren.org or call 208-391-5277.