WITH THE school calendar being 180 days, do you ever wonder what happens the other 185 days a year when it comes to proper nutrition?
Lack of food at home and food insecurities are significant barriers for children to overcome to be able to learn at school.
Santa’s Pantry strives to alleviate that burden for SCCPSS students over the two week winter break.
All Savannah Chatham County Public School System students are offered a free nutritious lunch in the morning before school, and nearly 70% of SCCPSS students meet the poverty line for free and reduced lunch.
Almost 25,000 Chatham County public school children receive a healthy free or reduced cost lunch at school, and thousands more pay regular price.
If a child eats both breakfast and lunch at school, they can come close to achieving their USDA nutritional dietary guideline requirements for the entire day.
Onetha Bonaparte, SCCPSS School Nutrition Director, says, “the School Nutrition Program develops menus based on the meal patterns that are required by the USDA. We also integrate items collected from surveys of students in the district and incorporate them into the menus. We must offer ½ cup fruit or vegetables, and at least two other food groups at breakfast. For lunch we are required to offer five meal components that include grains, meat or meat alternate, milk, fruits and vegetables. Our desire is to provide the students of this district attractive, delicious, and nutritious meals to assure the academic success for our students.”
What do children do when they don’t have access to nutritional food at home the other 185 days a year?
Lisa Lockhard, a counselor at East Board K8 School, says, “students who are not getting enough to eat at home will often take food from other students, hoard food in the cafeteria and will ask for seconds. Some may even have trouble focusing on their work.”
Gabrielle Brundidge, from Hubert Middle School concurs, “when my students do not have enough to eat at home or food insecurities, it manifests in them either over eating at school, asking for food from peers and staff, or even hiding and storing food in their bags for later. Sometimes students in this situation will hoard food, and it will become a problem, because teachers will find stale, old food in their desk, or in the backpacks.”
Brundidge notes, “what I usually see as counselor is students asking for food before the break, so that they have enough food over the long holidays. Sometimes families will reach out to the school and see if we have a connection on resources, and if we do we direct families that way.”
That is where programs like Santa’s Pantry come into play and are an essential component of community wrap around services.
Erin Roma, public school advocate, says, “Voices For Schools decided to take on this project because, while there are multiple long term needs that impact education, feeding children over a break is an immediate need that our community can rally behind. If we can ameliorate even some of the hunger experienced by students that directly impacts their education when they return.”
In its fourth year, Santa’s Pantry provides non-perishable food to students before the two week holiday break in December. Last year 900 families were served with this program, this year organizers hope to be able to feed even more families, but that depends are on many donations are received.
This year, the 10 SCCPSS schools with the highest percentage of free/reduced lunch as reported by the Georgia Department Of Education were selected for the program: Brock Elementary, Williams Elementary, E Broad Street School, Windsor Forest Elementary, Shuman Elementary, Haven Elementary, Hodge Elementary, DeRenne Middle, Hubert Middle, and Butler Elementary.
With a 2019 School Food Service budget of over $24 million, 7th District Board Member and Budget Committee Chairman Michael Johnson says, “any organization that is willing to step up when school is not in session, winter or summer break, is a life saver. Some of our children only have a guaranteed meal when school is in session. I wish the organizations that are helping had the funding to help even more children. Nothing breaks my heart more than knowing there are children in our county that go to sleep hungry because they are without.”
It can be embarrassing for a student to be singled out because of poverty, so SCCPSS staff take safeguards during lunch service and distribution of donated food to take home in order not to food shame.
Brundidge says, “the students are called to the counseling office right before dismissal, and the bags are distributed by the parent coordinator and myself. We wanted the students who receive the bags to not feel shamed or less than, that is why we have this policy at Hubert. It also lets us connect with the students and families who receive the bags, because we are able to identify the students who need this service.”
At Haven Elementary School, Lila Black, School Counselor, notes, “in my school it is considered a special treat and all of the students wish to be included. Years ago I started the idea that these were “treat bags” and subsequently the students in my school consider it a novelty and special privilege. I do not discuss what is in them (the bags) and I tell students that anyone’s mother can contact me.”
“Every year we learning how to do this better. So we can keep growing and expanding to serve more students across the district”, says Jenny McCord, public school advocate. “As long as there is a need, Voices for Schools will be ready to help.”