Schools hand out backpacks full of food for 254 students each week

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Nearly 30 percent of Valencia County children experience hunger, according to a study released earlier this year by Feeding America, a national anti-hunger organization.

During the week, many of those hungry children have access to low- or no-cost meals while at school to help balance out food shortages at home.

Barron Jones-News-Bulletin photo: Backpacks line a counter top at H.T. Jaramillo Community School in Belen. The backpacks, stuffed with child-friendly food, are picked up by students participating in the Food for Kids Backpack Program.

But on the weekends and holidays, the school cafeterias that serve those meals are closed, which means many students won’t get enough to eat until they return to school.

To reduce the number of students starting the school week hungry, Roadrunner Food Bank sends weekend food home with students from Belen’s H.T. Jaramillo Community, Rio Grande, La Promesa and Los Lunas’s Desert View elementary schools.

The food assistance is part of the nonprofit’s Food for Kids Back Pack Program that provide backpacks full of easy-to-open snacks and ready-to-eat meals to low-income and at-risk families.

“It’s extremely important. It coordinates with their education,” said Belinda Maez, secretary and program coordinator at H.T. Jaramillo Community School. “If they are not fed and they come to school hungry, they aren’t learning.”

Students and families either sign up for the program or they are referred by one of the school’s staff members who suspect a student may not be getting enough to eat at home. Many students who use the confidential program are homeless, Maez said, or in between family members.

“It could be someone in the cafeteria that notices a student is always asking for seconds (or) a teacher who notices a student comes in on Monday and eats breakfast like they haven’t eaten all weekend,” she said.

The food is targeted toward elementary-aged children and not the child’s adult relatives. However, she said, if a student enrolled in the program has an elementary-aged sibling or younger living in the home, the school packs enough food to help feed them over the weekend, as well.

Maez recruited her mother, Mary Alice Barela, to help out with the program. Barela spends a few hours each week single handily getting the backpacks ready for the Friday afternoon disbursement. The 46 backpacks she prepares contain enough food to supplement the nutritional needs of about 70 children.

Countywide, the program sends home enough food to help feed 254 students from the four schools that participate in the program.

Barela said she donates her time filling the backpacks to help area children get the well-balanced nutrition they need for a proper education.

Several studies indicate that undernourishment experienced by children during the formative years not only impacts their behavior but also impacts their overall cognitive development and school performance.

Every other week, participating schools receive a shipment from Roadrunner of child-friendly foods such as peanut butter and jelly, animal crackers, fruit snacks and beef stew.

The amount of food a school receives from the program depends on the school’s student population. Most schools have a waiting list for students wanting to enter the program.

For schools in Valencia County and across the state, participation in the program is based on responses to a request for proposal issued by the nonprofit.

Every three years, food bank staff call principals of elementary schools that qualify for the program and solicit participation in the process.

Schools that aren’t chosen go on a waiting list.

“Most of our schools are Title I schools,” said Jennifer Rocha, Roadrunner community nutrition coordinator. “We do not serve schools that are below 50 percent free and reduced lunch.”

Every school week, 3,495 children in 47 low-income schools spread out across eight counties receive the food.

To ensure the backpacks receive a consistent variety, Rocha said Roadrunner buys most of the food it uses for the backpacks.

“It’s difficult (for students to) live in society and be equal among others at school when they are at a disadvantage because they are living in a car or in a hotel,” she said. “It is hard to study and get their work done.”

Those who wish to help support the program can earmark a donation for the Food for Kids Back Pack Program, by calling Roadrunner Food Bank’s Albuquerque office at 247-2052.