Every Monday, teachers at area schools watch for students who run for breakfast and lunch lines, poke through trash cans looking for food to take home or who ask other students for food.
These are the area’s hungriest students; children who come to school at the start of the week not having eaten over the weekend. Now, the Johnson County Community Foundation is partnering with a central Indiana food bank to ensure these students get meals on Saturday and Sundays.
For several years, Gleaners food bank in Indianapolis has been trying to feed about 300 area students from 11 Clark-Pleasant, Franklin and Greenwood schools who don’t have food at home over the weekend.
Providing meals for those students costs about $45,000 annually, and this year the community foundation has pledged to contribute $10,000 to help maintain the program as part of its spring grant awards.
The community foundation has worked with Gleaners previously, supporting its mobile food pantry and food banks at area schools. This is the first time the foundation has contributed to Gleaners’ weekend food program, Wilson said.
Gleaners still needs to raise about $35,000 to cover the cost of the weekend food program in Johnson County, and the food pantry is seeking donations from residents and businesses to cover the remaining cost, director of foundation relations Robert G. Wilson said.
“We are determined to reach all of the kids who need the program,” Wilson said. “It’s something we can’t do without the partnership of the schools and many generous people.”
More than a third of the students at Johnson County’s six public school districts are signed up for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, meaning their families live at or near the poverty line. The weekend food program isn’t intended to provide food for all of the students who receive subsidized lunches, but it isn’t exclusive to those students, either.
Gleaners knows that some families who make too much to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch still don’t make enough to buy all of the food they need, Wilson said.
“The program isn’t intended for every child in poverty. It’s really designed for the very neediest of kids,” he said.
Gleaners started the program in 2006 after students in some Indianapolis schools were so hungry that they were fainting in class. School officials eventually realized that they weren’t eating at home over the weekend, and since the recession in 2008 the problem has only gotten worse, Wilson said.
While the economy locally and throughout Indiana has improved, that hasn’t made a notable difference in the number of hungry students throughout the state, as many families are still working one or several jobs that don’t pay them enough to buy groceries for everyone, Wilson said. That’s why Gleaners now operates the food program in 21 counties and feeds just over 10,000 children.
“A lot of families are still struggling,” he said.
The weekend meals students receive through the program include stews, soups and macaroni and cheese; and they can be heated or eaten at room temperature. Gleaners knows not all families have their utilities hooked up, Wilson said. Gleaners also had children taste test the meals used for the program, he added.
“We want to make sure that all of the food is nutritious and that it’s something the kids are going to eat,” Wilson said.