Feed a Hungry Kid (Audio File)

Staci Strauss

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Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Jan Pruitt, the President and CEO of the North Texas Food Bank. We discussed the Food 4 Kids program, which provides a backpack filled with non-perishable food items that a child in need can take home for the weekend. Twelve thousand children in the NTFB community who qualify for the free breakfast and lunch programs at their school also participate in the backpack program. They qualify when it is determined by school personnel that they live in a “food insecure” environment. “Food insecurity” is a pretty way of saying that these kids go hungry over the weekend when they are away from their school meal programs. Hungry kids. One in four kids in the North Texas community alone. In America. The most prosperous country on earth.

Listen to what Jan has to say or read the transcript of the audio interview, below.

Staci Strauss: Today we’re talking to Jan Pruitt, she’s the President, CEO of the North Texas Food Bank, and we’re talking about the Food4Kids program. Jan, thanks for talking to us today.

Jan Pruitt:  Thanks for having me.

SS: So, tell us about the Food 4 Kids program at the North Texas Food Bank. How did the program get started, and how does it work?

JP: Well, let’s start just with some facts about the Dallas area. What we do know is that one in three children in the Dallas area live in poverty, and that one in four children in the North Texas Food Bank Service area live in what’s called ‘food insecure’ households.

Texas is actually one of the states that are at the very top of the list in the number of children that are food insecure, and so we’ve known this is a problem in our community and our state and actually across the United States — about kids living in households not sure where their next meal will come from. So several years ago, we began to notice that there was a program growing in the food bank world and it was literally just growing from one food bank to another by word of mouth and I remember vividly that the director in the Oklahoma City food bank was telling me about this program and they were delivering backpacks to schools and I thought, ‘Well, not sure how that would fit in Dallas’ and about two years after that, we started with just a handful of schools and with a goal of doing 2000 backpacks to kids on the weekend. Now what the backpack program is all about is giving a child (that’s leaving school on Friday afternoon) a backpack with a pack of food in it that is non-perishable, kid friendly, nutritious food and this is to kids that have been identified by the school as being chronically hungry, and so the program is to make sure that child has access to some food over the weekend. Well, in just a few short years, that program has grown from 2000 backpacks each Friday to this year, where we’re in 330 schools and we’re sending out 12,000 backpacks each Friday.

SS: Unbelievable! 12,000 backpacks each Friday.

JP:  It is unbelievable that in a city as sophisticated and as cosmopolitan as Dallas is considered that this is what we think is just the tip of the iceberg, we’re really not sure what the full need for the program is, when we look at the 13 counties we serve, and this program is very much driven by the school personnel, by the nurse or the counselor or a teacher that sees the child and knows the situation in the home and they’re able to respond to that need immediately, there’s not a lot of bureaucracy. It’s very hands-on from the teacher or principal counselor side of the equation.

SS:  Well, I have to stop right here and say way to go everybody for recognizing a need and finding a really, what seems to be a practical solution that obviously is working, now are the nurses and school personnel seeing some improvement in some of these children?

JP: You know, what they tell us, right now we have just the anecdotal stories of success from teachers who tell us that attendance in the classroom is higher on Friday than it used to be because the kids know that the backpack is coming on Friday. We also hear from teachers that kids are not rushing the breakfast line on Monday morning like they did before the program. There is some, again, anecdotal evidence that test scores are better and just — I think the easiest thing to measure for us right now is attendance, but as part of our new Rethink Hunger strategic plan that was just kicked off in July, we are creating a virtual research center meaning there are no bricks and mortar to this research center its just a house here in the food bank and we are really going to begin to focus in on the Food 4 Kids program and do some actual research around the impact on kids that are on the program over a period of time.

SS: So how much does it cost to buy one backpack and what does the child get for the amount of money one spends on a backpack?

JP:  Well the cost is approximately $5 for each backpack for each weekend. And each backpack contains four meals. Now they’re not what we would typically think of in a meal, it’s again, got to be non-perishable, kid friendly but it is nutritious food and it’s been looked at very closely by a registered dietician here in the food bank, so you’re really looking at two thirds of their recommended daily allowance for vitamins. So it’s got things like fruit jerky, shelf-stable milk, cereal, breakfast bars, trail mix, fruit cups, juice box, cheese, crackers, and some of those things change depending on an extra good price on something we can get but we do try to have a really nice assortment of food that number one, kids will eat, and that if they eat they are getting good nutritious snacks.

SS:  That’s terrific. How many kids are served weekly in the Dallas-Ft Worth area?

JP: Approximately 12,000 children, and that’s in Dallas, Denton, Collin, Rockwall and Fannon counties, and they receive a backpack full of food each weekend over the school year. We served about 8200 in our last fiscal year that ended in June, and so this year as you can see we’ve really ramped up the number of kids. We also do a much smaller program during the summer getting to the kids during the summer that are on free breakfast and free lunch and on the backpack program is a very high priority for the Food Bank so we do have some sites that we can continue the backpacks over the summer but you know, we’re not meeting the need during the summer. There are a lot of kids that are food insecure, actually that’s a real nice term “food insecure” — the reality is there are a lot of kids that are hungry over the summer when school’s out.

SS: Tell us what people can do to help, Jan.

JP:  Well it’s always that you know, give us a dollar, because, across the Food Bank, we can turn a dollar into three meals.  It’s a little bit higher cost with the backpack program because this is a program where we go directly to the client/students, we spend about 2 million dollars each year on this program. Partly because we purchase all of the food items. For anyone that knows about food banks, we are environmentalists with a capital E, because we are all about saving food that is still edible, consumable and making sure it doesn’t get thrown away. But in this particular program, the backpack program, we do purchase all of the items to protect the nutritional value of it. So it is a high dollar program for us, and any kind of  help anyone can give us on this program would be very much appreciated. We’ve got many people, not just children but many people that are doing without food in a country where we have plenty and the food banks across the country, the Feeding America Food Banks across the country are doing everything they can do to give hands into those in need.

SS: I’m sure all of this good work is not lost and it seems insurmountable but piece by piece maybe we can all work together and the goal would be to have no hungry children in this great country.

JP:  That’s absolutely it and I tell people every day we can all do something. We can’t all give a million dollars but we can all give a dollar. Now we can’t all volunteer every day, but we can volunteer once a quarter or once a month. It just takes everyone doing something about this problem and we put a man on the moon. We can do something about this, too.

SS:  That’s terrific Jan, you’ll be hearing from me again and thank you and enjoy your afternoon

JP:  Thank you, bye

Help Jan help hungry kids. Give what you can today. Remember, $5 feeds a child four nutritious meals over an otherwise “food insecure” weekend. Five bucks.  Who’s in?

Click here for the North Texas Food Banks’ donation pageSimply specify “Food 4 Kids” in the comments.