Grassroots school hunger relief program begins second year

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A volunteer-run hunger relief program is expanding its reach into south Washington County schools.

The Weekend Pack Program debuted last year. It was conceived as a way to provide off-site meals for needy students in Pullman Elementary, Oltman Middle and Park High schools. The three were chosen by virtue of the high percentage of students enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

This year, the Weekend Pack Program is also bundling take-home meals for eligible students at Crestview and Newport elementary schools, as well as the Pathways to Independence Lab in Woodbury, which serves students with disabilities.

“We continue to grow our numbers. About 35 students per weekend are receiving packs right now and we anticipate that number to grow,” said Laura Vogel, a gifted education support specialist for District 833. Vogel helped to organize the Weekend Pack Program, which is not an official district operation.“It’s supplemental,” she said. “It’s not meant to compete with food shelves.”

Some students who might eat well at school might face “food insecurity” once they go home for the weekend, social workers and anti-hunger activists said. 

“It impacts their ability to learn,” said Dawn Blankenship, social worker at Crestview. “We want to meet their basic needs so we can accomplish their best at school.”

The Weekend Pack Program is sponsored by Good in the ’Hood, a Minneapolis-based anti-hunger organization. They provide the food, donated through various organizations, as well as the legal and bureaucratic heavy lifting. 

Good in the ’Hood trucks food donations to the Pathways to Independence Lab in Woodbury, where young adults in the Next Step Transition Program assemble single-serve items like macaroni and cheese and pudding into packs. 

The packs are distributed discretely to students so as to avoid embarrassment, Newport principal Rich Romano said. 

“I think we are identifying our most at-need families to support,” he said.

One of the donors to the program is Eagle Brook Church in Woodbury, where Vogel is a member. Last year, Eagle Brook members watched  a video of a similar take-home food program that was organized by a woman in another Twin Cities school district. 

Vogel enlisted fellow member Paula Miller, who is also Park High School counselor, about starting their own program. The team grew to include Erin Peterson, a homeless liaison for the district, and Nicole Loch, work coordinator for District 833’s Next Step Transition Program.

The Rev. Shawn Morrison, executive director of Good in the ’Hood, estimated that they’re serving from eight to 15 students a week at Newport and Crestview.

“We wish we didn’t have to do this but we’re glad we’re able to do it,” he said. “It means so much for us to be able to collaborate with schools.”