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Feeding the hidden hungry

Some students in District 833 may look forward to school on Mondays — because that’s when they’ll get their next proper meal.

Weekend “food insecurity” follows many students home — or to homeless shelters — across the state, social workers and anti-hunger activists say. Once they’re outside the reach of school nutrition services, they go hungry.

South Washington County Schools staffer Laura Vogel decided to do something about it. Last year, she helped to launch the Weekend Pack Program that provides needy students with a care package to take home that consists of single-serve items like macaroni and cheese, pudding cups and juice boxes.

“I just felt that we needed to do something here,” said Vogel, who works as a gifted education specialist for the district. “I called a team of people together and we started talking. By September of that year we were able to send out our first packages.”

The weekend packs are intended for the students and sometimes their siblings. 

“It’s supplementary,” Vogel said. “It’s not to replace food shelves.”

The pilot program ended with this school year, but Vogel said they’ll bring it back in the fall.

The Weekend Pack Program focused on Pullman Elementary, Oltman Middle and Park High schools. They were selected based on the ratio of students in the free or reduced-price lunch program.

“Really our focus was Pullman, Oltman and Park, due to the fact that they feed into each other,” Vogel said. “Kids in Pullman Elementary School go to Oltman, who go to Park. Many of the siblings are in one of those three schools.”

In April, they delivered 79 weekend packs at Pullman, 24 at Oltman and 35 at Park. Another eight went to students at Royal Oaks Elementary School in Woodbury.

The program will probably expand to other schools, Vogel said.

She was inspired after she watched a video about a woman who helped organize a similar program in another Twin Cities school district. The video was shown to parishioners at Eagle Brook Church in Woodbury.

Vogel partnered with Good in the Hood, a hunger-relief organization in Minneapolis. They provide the food, donated through various organizations, as well as the legal and bureaucratic heavy lifting. Vogel and her colleagues volunteered their own time to make the program work.

“They’re on the front lines,” said the Rev. Shawn Morrison, executive director of Good in the ‘Hood. “They know the students, they know the need. We’re kind of the invisible sponsoring organization.”

Dedicated food donations came from Thrivent Financial, 3M and Eagle Brook Church. Schools in District 833 also helped by organizing food drives.

To get the program off the ground, Vogel approached Park High School counselor and fellow Eagle Brook member Paula Miller. They also enlisted Erin Peterson, a homeless liaison for the district.

“She has done a tremendous amount of work,” Miller said of Vogel. “She is the key to it being successful in our district.”

Another key player is Nicole Loch, coordinator for the district’s Next Step Transition Program. The Next Step curriculum assists special needs young adults, ages 18 to 21, to prepare for an independent life following high school. The Weekend Pack Program provided an opportunity for them to learn job skills by assembling the packs at the district’s Pathways facility in Woodbury. 

“We turn that packing project into a work experience,” Loch said. “We are also helping students become good citizens so it’s a wonderful piece of outreach.”

A student can be referred by their teacher or counselor, Miller said. She said she hands out the packs to students on Friday afternoon. 

“I time it so they don’t run into each other,” Miller said. “Kids will come to the counseling office. I’ll have a green Wolfpack bag or students will put it in their backpack.

“I have one student who takes five packs a week because he’s taking it for all his siblings in the program.”

At Oltman, staff pitched in to buy black bags to hold the weekend packs, Principal Becky Schroeder said. About 12 students currently use the program. They also added fruit to the packs.

“The staff really steps up when it comes to the needs of the kids here,” she said. “This at least guarantees that students are eating over the weekend.

“If they’re not fed, they’re not going to learn in the classroom and all they’re thinkingabout is food because they’re so hungry.”

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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