The federally funded free and reduced school lunch program is crucial for many children and families nationwide, including in Montezuma County. But on weekends, no school means no lunch, which can have dire consequences for students who need it most.
The newly established backpack program at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School aims to address that problem.
The program, initiated by locals Paul and Dana Lindhoff, matches identified students anonymously with a provider. Students are each given a backpack, which their provider will then fill up with enough nonperishable food for the weekend.
“Because a lot of times, students will get lunch on Friday,” Paul Lindhoff said, and they might not know when their next meal will come.
Paul Lindhoff said they were searching for a way to contribute to the area, and the idea arose after a conversation with eighth-grade counselor Robyne Cote before the 2018-19 school year.
“We said, ‘Well, what if we just put together some food in a backpack for kids that are in serious need over the weekend,’” he said. “That’s kind of how it got going.”
Cote agreed to take part, without fully realizing the ultimate scope of the program.
“Not understanding how much work it was going to turn out to be, how much time it would take,” she said, laughing.
Schools as a safety netThe U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food security as having “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” In the USDA’s latest report, 7.7 percent of households with children – 2.9 million households – experienced food insecurity at times during 2017.
Schools and the USDA-operated National School Lunch Program provide a safety net for many children across the U.S. The program offers free and reduced meal pricing based on income eligibility. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for free meals, and those whose family income falls between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level can receive meals at a reduced price.
According to the most recent data from the Colorado Department of Education, in the Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 School District, 60 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches, 19 percentage points higher than the state average.
The need to fill the gap during summer and other breaks throughout the year is well-established. During a calendar discussion at a recent RE-1 school board meeting, the issue came up a few times, particularly as directors debated the potential impact of a four-day school week – with one fewer day of school for meals.
At the Good Samaritan Food Pantry in Cortez, 33 percent of their customers in 2018 were children between the ages of 0 and 17, said Kristen Tworek, the pantry’s director. While clients are able to collect food at the pantry nine times a year, Good Samaritan recently began offering cereal and milk to clients’ schoolchildren over the summer. The food distribution did not count toward the nine-visit total.
Now that the pantry has moved to a new site on North Beech Street that has more storage space, staff hope it will be easier to expand this offering, Tworek said.
The backpack programAt first, Cote said, they looked to identify student backpack program participants through the list of those enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program. They spoke together as teachers, counselors and administrators, as they themselves often have a sense of which students or families were struggling, Cote said.
“Now it’s just as needs come up, we try to make it happen,” she said.
The number of student participants fluctuate, but there have been six consistent students, she said. Initially the program was intended to primarily feed students, but it’s morphed over time to include families as well.
“When some of the providers were realizing, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m feeding a family of six for a whole weekend,’ I noticed the backpacks getting heavier,” Cote said.
In a best-case scenario, the program would operate as a well-oiled machine, with backpacks filling up on Thursday or Friday and students returning to school with empty packs on Monday.
With the first four students matched up, the program functioned just so, Cote said. “That has just worked like clockwork,” she said. “As the program has grown, and we’ve added more kids and more providers, we’ve had kids who have struggled to bring the backpacks back.”
They have had to shuffle a few student-provider matches around – some providers have been more rigid in their desire for students to take responsibility of their backpacks, while others are more flexible.
“We’ve had to make some adjustments and modifications and be really fluid and flexible,” Cote said.
Cote said she’s grappled with the concern that the program could lead to difficulties over extended school breaks, that they provide extra, needed food that then suddenly disappears.
“These families have gotten to depend on this or become used to having this, and so now we’ve got two weeks off of school,” she said. “That’s a hard problem to solve.”
Although the backpack program remains anonymous, a personal relationship can still develop between students and providers. Cote sees notes passed back and forth regarding food preferences, and in December, providers gave Christmas presents to their student matches.
While the program may not be able to meet all the needs of the community, it has helped to shine a light on the larger issue of food insecurity at the middle school, Cote said. They have started a sandwich station at the middle school for identified students.
“I don’t think I understood the depth of kids not eating or needing something, or coming to school hungry, until this started,” she said. “And so now, I try to ask more questions, when I’m trying to set up a new kiddo with a backpack.”
She recalled speaking with one student from a large family getting by on food stamps, who said there was never enough to eat.
“So you’re hungry every day?” Cote asked the student. “She said, ‘Yeah.’ And I didn’t know that. How many of those are we missing? You hate that.”
The program’s organizers are still seeking additional providers. For more information, contact the Lindhoffs at [email protected]