Southwest works to ensure students don’t miss meals

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Breakfast in the classroom, ‘super snacks’ being considered with grant

Due to the persistence of a former Southwest school teacher to get food sent home with children at-risk for missing meals, and the school’s superintendent push to obtain grants for innovative new food programs, student hunger is getting fried.

After making several phone calls, the teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, got the attention of Ozarks Food Harvest (OFH), a large, community-based food program based in Springfield, which began stuffing 60 backpacks with food each week to help provide supplemental food for students.

The district already filled 71 backpacks per week, but was operating on a shoestring budget each year, partially through district funds and partially through community donations, but thanks to OFH’s contribution, the lion’s share of student needs are now covered, said Tosha Tilford, Southwest superintendent.

“This was a huge blessing,” Tilford said. “Without the OFH, the district would not be able to sustain the backpack program as it is now. With all the budget cuts we’ve had to make, we didn’t have to cut that program, and we have had to, at times, make hard decisions. They deliver the food and it’s ready to go.”

Every school district in Barry County has a similar backpack program for students who are believed to be at risk for missing meals at home.

No child should have to miss a meal, but the fact that so many are, as evidenced by supplemental food programs in each district, when EBT benefits and food pantries are available, begets the question of ‘Why?’

Besides the obvious benefit of food providing sustenance, nutrition and silencing grumbling bellies, studies show that show that children who don’t miss meals listen better and are more alert, making them able to learn and perform better in school.

To take the issue one step further and keep bellies full on both weekends and school nights, and minds alert, Tilford applied for and got the grant, No Kid Hungry Missouri.

“This will serve as an additional food supplement,” she said. “Our hopes with the program is that we can feed kids a “super snack” before they leave school for the day. It’s not a supper replacement, but something that has nutritional value before they leave, so if they didn’t get supper, they would have that nutrition to get them through until the next morning.

“Also, we have kids who have activities after school like band, drama, sports and clubs, and we could [potentially] work out a program where the super snack is available for every child in the district. What some schools have done is offset the departure of their buses for about a 10-minute period to allow the kids to go get their super snack and eat it.”

Tilford said the snack, which would consist of items from basic food groups like granola, string cheese and fruit, would provide better alternative than quick, drive-through meals parents must grab on nights students have activities at school.

“This program would allow them to get a more nutritional snack to count as their supper than if they ran through a fast food restaurant, so we’re looking at this as another resource to help meet hunger needs,” Tilford said. “Academically, our students will perform better if they have the most nutritious food available, and if it means the school can take on the ‘super snack’ to sustain them until the next morning, we are more than willing to get that done.”

The program is not free, but will provide a boost to build momentum.

“It’s not 100 percent funded, but in one component of the program, we can get up to $3,000 for startup costs,” Tilford said. “I’m hoping to have a plan submitted to the school board by Nov. 1, and get it started right after the first of the year. The cost is well worth it, especially since the grants are willing to help us get started.”

Another grant Tilford has applied for are specialized totes that keep food hot or cold through the Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is 100 percent matchable — making it doable.

“With this program, we would buy serving totes to keep food the right temperatures, which could be transported and allow us to serve breakfast in the classroom, or after school,” she said.

The deadline to apply is Dec. 4, and if accepted, Tilford hopes to have it in place after Christmas.

Also on Tilford’s radar is making a “grab and go-style” breakfast available to students, another component of the No Kid Hungry program.

“The key is to get more students eating breakfast,” Tilford said. “Younger kids are more likely to go to the cafeteria to eat, but older kids usually get to school later and they’d rather get food like chocolate milk and donuts, so grab-and-go is a bagged breakfast they can just grab and take to their first class. The research says if those kids will eat first thing, such as during morning announcements, other kids will see it and want to get it, and then the class. Then, almost the entire student body will be more likely to eat breakfast.”

At first, educators frowned on the idea of students eating breakfast in the classroom, Tilford said, but those views are changing, with many schools jumping on board, allowing students to eat their breakfast during nonacademic periods, such as during morning announcements.

“Missouri has really been fishing for this program, and we were, at first, looking at it like an academic disruption,” Tilford said. “But, the more we’ve researched it, it results in being a positive, because they get a nutritional breakfast versus a donut, they’re more engaged, more apt to listen and learn more.

“What it all boils down to is, we want the kids to be as healthy as possible so they can perform academically and grow into productive citizens.”

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