The Worcester County Food Bank makes the holidays brighter

By Jean McMurray, executive director, Worcester County Food Bank

The holidays are upon us and, as always, the Worcester County Food Bank (WCFB) and its network of food pantries are grateful for the generous and warm-hearted people who support our efforts to help feed our neighbors in Worcester County during the month of November and throughout the year.  
 
Neighbors like the two young girls I noticed during a recent visit to one of WCFB’s partner agencies – a church food pantry.  It was a Saturday morning, a beautiful autumn day and the girls were riding their bikes around the neighborhood.  As they rode by, I heard one of the girls ask the other, what food did you get from the church?

The girl exclaimed that she got cupcakes and then added that she also got cereal, rice, and hamburger meat.  As they rode away, I could hear the first girl saying that’s what she got too.  In a matter of moments, I went from feeling glad about the assistance the girls and their families received to feeling sad that a food pantry was a part of their reality at such a young age.

And yet it is a reality for a lot of children and families.  Research by Feeding America, the national network of food banks, suggests that for the majority of households seeking help, pantries are now a part of a household’s long-term strategy to supplement monthly shortfalls in food.

The girls I overheard that day are some of the 35,000 children in 39,000 households in Worcester County – 12% of all households – who do not always know where their next meal is coming from and who turn to WCFB’s network of food pantries and community meal programs for help.  This year, WCFB distributed 5.4 million pounds of food to its network; enough food for approximately 87,000 meals a week.  Individuals and families in need of food can visit WCFB’s website, www.foodbank.org and use the agency locator to find a range of food and nutrition assistance programs.  

The WCFB’s efforts go beyond the distribution of donated food because our mission is to engage, educate, and lead Worcester County in creating a hunger-free community.  We believe that food is a fundamental right of all people and that hunger is an issue of social justice. WCFB is a leading advocate for federal nutrition programs that promote access to healthy food such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps.  For children, we specifically advocate for healthy food and nutritious meals through school breakfast and lunch programs and the summer food service program.   These solutions are systemic and sustainable and they support children and their families in being more food secure and healthy.  

Worcester is a leader in these programs under the guidance of Donna Lombardi, Director of Child Nutrition for the Worcester Public School District.  Worcester families and their children are fortunate to have a strong advocate in Ms. Lombardi and her child nutrition staff who contribute to the educational success of the whole child by addressing their nutritional needs.  They lead a collective effort that includes school administrators, teachers, custodians, and allied organizations such as WCFB and the Worcester Food & Active Living Policy Council in supporting child nutrition programs, such as breakfast in the classroom.

This collaboration has a strong funding partner in the Eos Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation, which has pledged a 10-year commitment to support universal free breakfast in the classroom in income eligible schools across Massachusetts.  In May 2014, the Eos Foundation recognized Ms. Lombardi and Worcester Public Schools with a Healthy Start Leadership Award for reaching 80% or higher student participation in school breakfast programs at 18 schools for the 2013-2014 school year – more than any other school district in the Commonwealth.  The award was accompanied by a $10,000 grant, which has been used to incorporate locally grown fruits and vegetables into the school breakfast program.
And when summer vacation comes around, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) strives to ensure that children who depend on school breakfast and lunch during the school year still have access to free, nutritious meals and snacks during the summer when school is out. 

Children need consistent nourishment during the summer so their minds and bodies continue to grow and thrive in healthy ways and they return to school in the fall ready to learn.  

However, in Massachusetts, only one in five low-income children who ate a school lunch during the regular 2012-2013 school year was reached by SFSP, according to the Food Research and Action Center.  So WCFB and Worcester Public Schools teamed up and took SFSP on the road, delivering meals to kids in places where they gather to enjoy summer activities.  Our goal was simple: deliver good food and fun in the sun.

With support from the Our Family Foundation by Stop & Shop New England, WCFB purchased a refrigerated truck and donated it to the Worcester Public Schools.  In the summer of 2013, Worcester Public Schools delivered 4,100 to kids at the Bennett Field swimming pool and the Dennis F. Shine Memorial swimming pool.  In 2014, with a second truck funded by Our Family Foundation and donated by WCFB, the city’s five library sites were added to the delivery schedule and the number of meals provided for kids swelled to more than 13,000.  Ms. Lombardi attributed the increase in participation to a couple of factors – meals being served Monday through Saturday and meals that tasted good and were fun to eat such as fresh produce and yogurt parfaits.  

Another critical resource for families with children is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.  This program, also known as WIC, provides nutritious foods, nutrition education, and access to health care to low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children up to age 5.  
 
Child nutrition programs like school meals, summer meals, WIC, and others touch millions of children each day in the United States, and improve educational achievement, economic security, nutrition and health.  More information on these programs can be found at WCFB’s website, www.foodbank.org.

Every five years, Congress reviews a range of child nutrition programs through a reauthorization process and provides funding for these programs to ensure that low-income children have access to healthy and nutritious foods.  The current law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, is set to expire on September 30, 2015.  Between now and then, the reauthorization process is an opportunity for everyone who cares about kids and their well-being to advocate for improvements to child nutrition and school meal programs so they better meet the needs of Worcester’s children and all our nation’s children. 

Priorities include continuing to support the momentum of school breakfast expansion in every state, strengthening the Summer Food Service Program so they can meet the needs of children and communities when school is out, and ensuring more children have a healthy start by improving early childhood nutrition programs.