Tuesday February 12, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Some Molly Stark Elementary students are loading more than books and assignments into their backpacks each Friday.

Through a collaboration with Vermont Foodbank, 45 children who rely on free school breakfasts and lunches at Molly Stark are now also getting food to take home on weekends.

Since 2008 the BackPack Program has been meeting the needs of hundreds of hungry Vermont children when school meals are unavailable, but Molly Stark's enrollment this past fall made it the first Bennington County school to take advantage of the privately funded program.

"We noticed that a lot of kids were coming in hungry day-to-day and especially through the weekends," guidance counselor Kathy Hunt told the Bennington School District board during a presentation last week.

Through the program, Molly Stark receives crates of food the first Wednesday of each month containing bags with each child's name on them that the school then distributes at the end of each week. Each bag contains a cereal, shelf-stable milk, two cans of vegetables, two cans of fruit, a can of soup, and a snack such as Goldfish, Hunt said.

"Everything they give can be used without a refrigerator, microwave (or) can opener," Hunt said.

The program is being raved about in the schools and both the children and their families have been appreciative. "Parents have been very receptive. The kids get very excited, they'll stop me in the hallway sometimes just to make sure the food is coming home," Hunt said. "Very few kids are stigmatized by this."

Hunt reached out to the Vermont Foodbank last fall after hearing about the program in other schools. Molly Stark qualified for the program, which is free to the school and recipients, because of its high population of children who receive free or reduced lunch, however, the Foodbank had nearly reached its capacity so just 45 Bennington children can be served this year. About three-quarters of the children at Molly Stark receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch at school, but because of the capacity only the children who are homeless and those determined by staff to need it the most qualified this year. Hunt said there are seven students on a waiting list at Molly Stark in case children in the program move.

The intent is to expand the program to all of the low income children at Molly Stark and bring the program to Bennington Elementary, where nearly 70 percent of children are from low income homes.

Jennifer Hutchinson, youth programs manager for Vermont Foodbank, said schools are selected to participate in the program based on free and reduced lunch numbers as well as some other factors. The program tries to add two to three new schools each year, and Hutchinson said Bennington Elementary is on the radar as a possible school to be recruited next year.

In addition to adding a couple schools each year, Hutchinson said there is also an attempt to include more students at schools whose capacity is not being met -- making it likely additional children at Molly Stark will benefit from the program next year.

The third elementary school in town, Monument Elementary, does not meet the poverty level to qualify for the BackPack Program, but Principal Donna Cauley said schools are allowed to buy in to the program and she is trying to find funding to do so for the children who need it.

"We do have a population that's in need of this, but we don't meet the 50 percent criteria," Cauley said.

School board member Laurie Cohen recommended the board consider buying into the program for all of its children who qualify for free lunch if the program cannot provide free meals to them all.

"This is so fundamental to live," she said.

Molly Stark is one of 18 schools in the state participating in the BackPack Program this year, which is providing food for about 700 students every weekend.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi