Four years ago, Jennifer Moore decided to bring cupcakes and pizza to her daughter, Alyssa’s, third-grade class for her birthday party.
She said she was shocked to see that a few of Alyssa’s classmates seemed more excited about the supply of food than the festivities.
“Her birthday happened to fall on a Monday that year,” said Moore, CEO and founder of Food4Kids Backpack Program Inc. of North Florida. “A couple of students stood out to me because they seemed beyond normal ‘hungry’ for lunch time. A few of the kids in her class seemed more focused that day on the availability of the food rather than the small celebration. It was then that my eyes were opened to what hungry children look like in our country.”
Moore said she remembered mentioning this apparent hunger to the teacher as she watched a few students scarf down slices of pizza. That’s when the teacher explained that this is the usual behavior for a Monday morning following the weekends for some kids who might not be getting meals outside of school hours.
Moore felt compelled to do something.
She co-founded and launched the Food4Kids Backpack Program of North Florida in 2011 , a year after successfully implementing the program in Myra Terwilliger Elementary School. The program is a non-profit organization that gives students who experience food insecurity at home rolling backpacks filled with food. The students receive the rolling backpacks, which are particularly convenient for the elementary kids who can’t carry heavy loads, on Fridays for the weekend.
Food4Kids, which is 100 percent volunteer-run, is now working with 22 schools in Alachua County at elementary, middle and high-school levels.
Moore said that it is sustained with the support the program receives from the community. And although the volunteers might not be able to eradicate world hunger, they’re able to help the local demand for it by being able to “impact one hungry child, one belly at a time,” especially during the holidays.
Rozie Smith, a retired nurse practitioner and volunteer with the backpack program, said she searched for a community organization to volunteer with after retirement.
“This organization caught my heart,” Smith said. “Feeding hungry children in our own community, what’s more special than that?”
As the holiday season approaches, the organization is attempting to ease hunger by equipping students with boxes of large-quantity items of food to be split into several meals like; large boxes of cereal, oatmeal and one pound bags of rice, on oppose to a box of macaroni and cheese that is traditionally placed in the weekend backpacks.
“Because the schools are closed for two weeks, all the children in the Food4Kids program are receiving a box of food through the winter break food program, which is a program started by the school board,” said Rachel Alty, a volunteer for the program. “So we are collaborating together, and they’re using our warehouse space as we collect and fill boxes.”
Alty, who also helps with the donation coordination for Food4Kids, said its partnership with the Alachua County School Board exhibits “a wonderful community effort.” This is the third year the Alachua County School Board has chosen Food4Kids as a partner.
Food4kids also provides boxes for students in need during Thanksgiving, spring break and once each month during summer break.
Kelley Kostamo, partnership specialist with Alachua County Public Schools, explained how need is determined.
“More than half of the students in Alachua county public schools are on free and reduced lunch, so we’re talking about just under 15,000 students who are potentially at risk of going hungry over the weekend or over breaks,” she said. “We are just really serving the hungriest kids, and we let our schools determine who (beyond the backpack kids) gets the boxes to take home because they see them everyday…”
She explained that although Food4kids currently provides 150 backpacks for students to take home on weekends, it is aiming to provide another 650 boxes for families during this winter break’s.
“You’re trying to buy gifts, wrap up your end-of-the-year expenses, pay off your bills, and so we didn’t want for people to have to choose between not enough food and gifts,” Kostamo said. “We are trying to help as many families as we can.”