Packs for Kids program expands to 3rd school

By Sara Bruestle | Jun 19, 2013
Photo by: Sara Bruestle Anthony Leon and Lizbet Ayala help Horizon Elementary's Dean of Students Mark Robb fill a Packs for Kids backpack with food.

At Horizon Elementary, teachers notice each Monday when certain students are sluggish, inattentive or otherwise not performing at their usual level.

Those students have just spent a weekend going hungry.

For various reasons – poverty, absent parents, dysfunctional families or other causes – there’s no food in those students’ homes.

On school days, the students are fed breakfasts and lunches through the free and reduced fee meal programs. On weekends, they simply don’t eat.

In an effort to help, Horizon launched the Packs for Kids program this month.

In the program, backpacks are filled with nonperishable food items – such as canned tuna or chicken, macaroni & cheese, a box of cereal or fruit cups – that are simple to prepare or need no preparation.

Every week, students will pick up a backpack in the school office on Friday and take it home, returning it empty on Monday.

The fact of hungry students isn’t just an issue at Horizon – Packs for Kids programs were launched at Olympic View Middle School in 2010 and at Mukilteo Elementary in 2011. OV fills about 18 backpacks every week, ME about 14.

At ME, 22 percent of students qualified in 2012 for free and reduced lunches. At OV, that number is doubled at 40 percent.

Those numbers more than double again for students at Horizon – just under 88 percent are in the meals program. Educators have already identified 100-150 students who are in need.

Right now, the goal for Horizon is 50 packs every week – or to fill at least one-third the need. Program manager Oran Smith-Osterman is hoping to get an early start by collecting food and cash donations over the summer.

“Horizon Elementary School [has] the biggest need of all the schools in the district,” she said. “I don’t know if we can support [numbers] like that, but it’s a start.”

At Horizon, however, it’s not just on the weekends that students are going hungry.

“Throughout the week, teachers notice kids who are low on energy and unfocused, and they’ll say ‘Yeah, I didn’t have much to eat’ or ‘I didn’t get to eat today,’” said Mark Robb, the dean of students.

There is a stash of food for students to eat in the office when they need it – but Robb said he is hopeful Packs for Kids will do more to address the issue.

Smith-Osterman was one of the parents who helped out with the Packs for Kids program at OV. She sponsored one backpack the first year and two or three packs the second year.

Recently, she checked in with OV and ME’s Packs for Kids programs, and was shocked to learn that the program had yet to spread to other schools in the Mukilteo School District – especially to Horizon.

Her hope is to grow the programs and expand to other schools in the district, starting with the elementary schools. Her motto is “Helping one child at a time; with the hope of helping many.”

“The Packs for Kids program is making a dramatic difference in many families’ lives at Olympic View Middle School and Mukilteo Elementary,” Smith-Osterman said. “It is time to expand that difference.”

District-wide, 51 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, said district spokesperson Andy Muntz.

The need has grown steadily over the last several years; in 2010, 47 percent were in the meals program, in 2007, it was just under 40 percent.

Muntz said the real number of students who qualify might be much higher.

He said some students, especially those in high school, are eligible but don’t apply.

Hoping the program will grow, too, Horizon’s educators are reaching out to the community to assist in filling the backpacks.

“We hope to see that our students are able to focus better in school, concentrate on their work, instead of worrying about food over the weekend,” Robb said.

“We’re hoping to see that connection between our school and community members, as they help to donate to this program that is making a difference to those kids.”

Teachers, counselors, students, parents and others in the community are already coming forward. Some bring in a case of macaroni & cheese from Costco, others write a check to sponsor five backpacks.

Smith-Osterman has contacted businesses, churches, service clubs and the Mukilteo Food Bank, asking for help. Individuals are welcome to volunteer, as well, to “adopt” a backpack.

Packs for Kids is set up to ensure privacy and respect for participants. It costs $10 to sponsor one pack.

Want to help? Contact Oran Smith-Osterman at 206-372-0401 or oran.osterman@gmail.com.

#Publisher Paul Archipley contributed to this report.#

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