Cambridge backpack program provides
Every Friday morning, rain, shine or snow, Alanna Mallon can be found in the cafeteria at the Tobin Montessori School in North Cambridge sorting through boxes of food and preparing them for distribution.
Volunteers meet Mallon at the back door to drive the boxes to one of five other schools where more volunteers will pack food into individual backpacks for students to take home over the weekend.
The work is being done as part of the Weekend Backpack Program, which Mallon started last year with just 15 students at the Tobin. The program aims to serve as a food safety net for students whose primary source of nutrition comes from meals served at school.
Mallon, a Cambridge Public Schools parent, said she was surprised at how quickly administrators from other schools in Cambridge asked her to start the program at their school. In one short year, the program has grown 10-fold, and now serves 150 students between the Tobin, Vassal Lane Upper School, Peabody School, Fletcher Maynard Academy, Morse School, Graham & Parks School and the Martin Luther King School.
A team of administrators and staff at each school first worked to identify a list of students they thought would benefit from the program, but sent a letter home with every student. In every school, Mallon said they received exactly double the number of responses than they had originally anticipated.
“Everyone was sort of caught off guard,” Mallon said. “It’s a bigger problem than I had originally thought, and I think it’s a bigger problem than the school administrators originally thought.”
The administrators crosschecked the names of respondents with the list of high-risk students they had previously identified. If a student from the first list hadn’t signed up, Mallon said the school reached out to the family personally. Sometimes, it was a language barrier that prevented parents from signing their students up. Other times, it was pride, Mallon said.
“I know there was one student at the Peabody where the family was worried about whether or not it would be discrete,” Mallon said. “The school worked with them, and they started receiving the bags and were just so grateful because it is a really discrete program. No one knows who receives the bags.”
Food insecurity on the rise
Statewide, food insecurity rates are 40 percent higher today than they were before the Great Recession, according to the annual status report on hunger in Massachusetts by the non-profit organization, Project Bread. Those numbers are 80 percent higher than they were at the turn of the century, according to the report.
In Cambridge, the rate of food insecurity has remained relatively constant. The percent of students enrolled in the federal free- or reduced-lunch program grew from 42.7 percent in the 2006-2007 school year to 48.4 percent in 2011-2012 before declining to 45 percent last year. And, according to a 2013 survey by the Cambridge Public Health Department on health and safety risk factors among middle school students, food insecurity levels have hovered around five percent since 1997.
Project Bread executive director Ellen Parker said Cambridge presents an interesting case study because the city is the organization’s third most generous donor to its annual Walk for Hunger fundraiser, with Cantabrigians donating more than $94,000 last year. At the same time, Project Bread supported 21 organizations in Cambridge in 2012 that together served more than 44,000 people, including 13,793 children and 8,390 seniors.
The meal programs in Cambridge reported serving 83,108 meals that year, according to Project Bread. If those numbers seem large, it’s because the aggregate figures include people who might have visited more than one food pantry or program, Parker said.
People who worry about whether or not they will be able to put food on the table often feel isolated from their peers, Parker said, making it all the more difficult to reach out and ask for help. No one wants to be pulled aside and demonstrated as the “poor person,” she said.
“What struck me about this program is just how particular and local it is,” Parker said. “But being aware that hunger is both a communal and relational issue is really important because it says you can see the whole person. You don’t just see them as a one-dimensional being needing food.”
Statistically, Parker said children are always at higher risk of facing hunger than adults. Project Bread targets schools that have high rates of poverty, which go hand-in-hand with food insecurity, Parker said. Because Cambridge has an established and comprehensive nutrition program that includes breakfast and lunch for students, Parker said Project Bread doesn’t often support school-based programs.
That doesn’t mean that food isn’t on the top of parents’ minds, though. Nancy Tauber, executive director of the Cambridge Kids’ Council, recently interviewed nearly 100 parents and more than 100 providers of services related to children. The group represented every age and school within the district and included School Department staff, after-school programs, childcare providers, public health officials, police officers, and myriad community partners, Tauber said.
She wanted to know what kind of information parents were looking for when it came to their kids.
“Everyone was looking for more information on after-school academic support for their students, but after that it was housing, employment, food, health care and mental health,” Tauber said. “Those were the biggest categories of information that people are looking for.”
Finding affordable food
With the conversion of the Johnnie’s Foodmaster in Somerville, just over the line from Cambridge, from a discount grocery store to a Whole Foods Market, the city lost one of its last affordable grocery stores, said Elaine DeRosa, executive director of the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Commission. Cambridge is home to three Whole Foods Markets, two Shaw’s, two Trader Joe’s and a smattering of smaller-scale locally owned grocers.
“What the city really needs in its food and fitness program is to help people get affordable food,” DeRosa said. “Whole Foods it the most expensive and Shaw’s is one of the most expensive places to shop, so it’s a struggle.”
The Public Health Department in December instituted the Healthy Market Program, which worked to get corner stores to provide fresh produce. That’s good in a pinch, DeRosa said, but not if someone is trying to feed their family. With the reduction in S.N.A.P. (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits set to go into effect in March, DeRosa said more people will be choosing between food and medicine, or food and heat.
“People aren’t finding more ways to get affordable food, they’re cutting back on what they’re eating,” DeRosa said. “They’re stocking up on food that will feed their kids that don’t necessarily have the high nutritional values that we would like to see.”
Mallon said although it’s a little more expensive to buy things like shelf-stable milk, all of the food provided in the Weekend Backpack Program comes straight out of the School Department’s meal plan. DeRosa said it’s not unusual to find low-income people eating more high-caloric foods to fill up because it’s cheaper. But hunger and unhealthy diets have serious ramifications for growing kids, Parker said.
“Being hungry has a dramatic impact on students’ capacity to learn,” Parker said. “A kid who eats breakfast at school just does better. Hunger really impacts their cognitive ability.”
Teachers can’t be expected to deliver high MCAS scores and high literacy rates if students are coming to them with a deficit, Mallon said.”It’s really impossible to teach kids who are hungry,” Mallon said. “When you’re hungry for lunch, all you can concentrate on is how hungry you are.”
For $6 per student per week, or $250 per student each year, Mallon says she can help solve this problem. She is hoping to expand to the remaining seven elementary schools and three middle schools that are not currently participating in the program. Mallon has already started a small pilot program at the high school, but said logistical challenges with students’ varied schedules make the older students much harder to reach than in the lower grades.
Currently, the program is funded through individual donations as well as several grants from the pediatric division of the Cambridge Health Alliance, “Friends of” groups at the various schools, and others. Mallon said it would cost around $105,000 to fund the program for the entire district.
Last December, then-Councilor Marjorie Decker submitted a policy order asking the city manager to report back to the council about the feasibility of funding the program in its entirety. According to the order, 50 percent of the students participating in the program had medium- to high-absentee rates prior to the launch. By the end of the year, attendance was up for all days of the week, but especially on Fridays – food pickup day.