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Silent epidemic gets a stealth solution

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Animas Elementary School Principal Lisa Schuba helps third-grader Landon Davis and fifth-grade student Shelby Hand pack backpacks with food that students who qualify for free or reduced lunches will take home at the end of the school week.

By Chase Olivarius-Mcallister Herald staff writer

Most adults can’t do long division after three cups of coffee.

Try learning how to do long division as a child on an empty stomach.

Since the recession, many students – locally and across the country – have tried: A report released in August by Share Our Strength, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that fights to abolish child hunger, said that in its survey of kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers, six in 10 said students routinely come to “school hungry because they are not getting enough to eat at home,” and “a majority of teachers who see hunger as a problem believe that the problem is growing.”

The effects of hunger on children are startling.

“It affects everything,” said Care and Share Food Bank’s program director Jennifer Mariano. “Their cognitive abilities, developmental and psychological issues, the ability to concentrate, just to get up out of bed and move. No offense to the media, but hunger is a silent epidemic, and people find it hard to believe that it goes on in our own country and neighborhoods.”

The problem is getting worse in La Plata County.

Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango School District 9-R, said currently, 36 percent of 9-R students qualify for free or reduced lunches – up from 28 percent in 2003.

“The qualification hasn’t changed, the population base has changed. We don’t know what’s causing that increase, we just know we’re going to continue to try and meet that need,” she said.

The burden is greater on some schools. At Animas Valley Elementary School, 53 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“We celebrate it. I really believe that diversity is important for schools. All kids benefit from being with people of different ethnicities, backgrounds,” said Lisa Schuba, who has been principal of Animas Valley for five years.

Schuba, along with Mancos School District’s nurse Karen Blain, is one of the stalwarts behind the “backpack” program, through which, every Friday, students who get free or reduced lunches in Durango and Mancos are sent home with backpacks stuffed with food.

Enter the backpacks

Tim Walsworth, director of United Way of Southwest Colorado, said CenturyLink’s acquisition of Qwest provided the impetus for the backpack program.

“They came to me and said, ‘let’s do something big.’ They were looking at poverty statistics and schools, and we decided the quickest solution was to ensure that food-insecure kids got food,” he said.

The pilot, which started in 2011 with 40 backpacks in two schools feeding 180 people in, was a huge success.

“Teachers had been reporting that on Monday, students would come in tired, hungry, unready to learn. Once they got the backpacks, that immediately changed,” Walsworth said.

Unfortunately, the money from Qwest, CenturyLink and an anonymous local donor was a one-off gift.

“When we couldn’t secure funding, Care and Share absolutely stepped up to the plate,” said Walsworth.

Care and Share not only funded the program, which costs about $11,000 a year (or $8.50 per backpack), it improved it with input from Schuba and Blaine. Mariano said nationwide, backpack programs are typically aimed at feeding kids, not parents.

“But then we really started digging into the recipients. First, we found our food wasn’t adequately nutritious. Two, we found that kids were sharing with older siblings or hungry parents. So we started sending home family packs – that provides a family of four with meals through the entire weekend – and committed to healthier ingredients in the backpacks – whole wheat pasta, brown bread, not white bread,” Mariano said.

Now, Animas Valley sends home 20 backpacks every Friday, and Needham and Riverview Elementary schools are poised to follow.

Feeling full

Megan Duchon-Zwart has had a string of tough years.

She works two minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet.

“I live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “There have been times when I go to City Market to buy groceries and my bill is more than I can afford and you have to put things back, with three people behind you in line – it’s so embarrassing. I have to be frugal.”

The financial stress became acute two years ago, when her husband “passed away at 32. I was 33, suddenly a widow and single mother of four children,” she said.

Then the backpack program started at Animas Valley, where two of her children are enrolled.

Duchon-Zwart said, “it was amazing, such a big help. Every time the backpack came home I was thrilled – macaroni and cheese, fruit, lunch snacks – it was just so wonderful.”

There’s nothing unusual about a child coming home from school with a backpack. This was the backpack program’s original insight. It removes the stigma of receiving help.

While families’ hunger requires decisive action, their poverty requires great social sensitivity. That’s why building relationships with families is important to the backpack program’s success, Schuba said.

“Students are very aware of their poverty, so it makes it easier if they can always come to me. I’ve had a child tell a teacher that she didn’t have snacks for school – we have enough on hand that I can do more for certain families,” she said.

Families’ comfort with Schuba works both ways. Duchon-Zwart said whenever things were going well and food was stocking up, she told her daughter, “to tell Miss Schuba we don’t need a backpack this week. It can go to another family.”

But that depth of involvement takes a lot of work.

“With the paperwork, checking in on the families, faxing info every month to organizations, it’s a lot to coordinate. But it’s a wonderful program, and I would certainly love to see implemented in all the schools. It takes someone with heart, but if it’s a priority, it’s so worthwhile,” said Schuba.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

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