West Texas Food Bank

Odessa's Food 2 Kids Expands Further Into Midland

Odessa's Food 2 Kids Expands Further Into Midland January 12, 2013

Odessa-based Food 2 Kids program expands to Midland

Meredith Moriak | Updated 7 months ago

More than 2,200 elementary school-aged children labeled as food insecure, likely not to eat a meal between lunchtime Friday and breakfast Monday morning, have received weekend meals from the Food 2 Kids backpack program since its inception in 2009.

Food 2 Kids, which started four years ago in Odessa as a project of the Junior League, Ector County ISD Education Foundation and West Texas Food Bank and serves 12 ECISD elementary schools, expanded its program to three Midland schools this year.

Each Friday during recess, teachers from Crockett, DeZavala and Travis elementaries place brown paper sacks inside the backpacks of nearly 200 students who have been identified as at-ris to ensure they will have something to eat over the weekend.

"I know that as difficult as it may seem, or as hard as it is to believe, there are actually folks in Midland County that are food-insecure, and a lot of them are children," said Ron Moss, MISD's director of guidance and counseling.

More than 8,000 children in Midland county are identified as food- insecure, according to Feeding America's "Map the Meal Gap" statistics, as provided by Paige Phelps, director of marketing and community relations for the West Texas Food Bank.

F2K's ultimate goal is to eliminate childhood hunger in West Texas, Cindi Wiehle, co-founder and board chair, said.

"The fact there are hungry children in our communities is treated like a secret. It's out there, but nobody likes to talk about it," Wiehle said. "There's no excuse for a kid to be hungry. Regardless of a parent's problems or situation, kids should eat. We don't want a hungry child in West Texas. Once we tackle that, we'll work on solving hunger problems for the rest of the world."

Weekend F2K meals are non-perishable and include two proteins, four fruits, two bags of cereal, four juice boxes, pudding cups and a sweet treat, said Libby Campbell, executive director of the West Texas Food Bank. Meals are packed by 50 to 70 community volunteers on the first and third Wednesdays of the month.

While trying to ensure the food included in the sacks is nutritious, Campbell said they also want to ensure it's something children will eat.

"A lot of these kids have never been exposed to fresh fruits and vegetables because they're so expensive. They see the foods as unapproachable and aren't even sure how to eat them because they've never been exposed to them," Campbell said. "We have to ensure we provide them with foods that are approachable and will be consumed."

Items included in the bags also have changed over time, as they learn what children are and aren't eating.

"'No beanie weenies' is the message we're getting, but for some reason they absolutely love tuna fish," Campbell said. "They're also not big on eating cold vegetables, so we're increased the number of fruits students receive in each bag."

Pudding cups, which have the same amount of calcium as milk, replaced dry milk in the bag after Campbell learned many children didn't have the water needed to mix up the milk.

"We have to assume that our students have no refrigerator, microwave, oven, adult or utensils," Campbell said, noting all items in the bag have pop-tops and can be eaten without being heated. "That's very much the situation for a lot of our kids."

Midlander Val Careless is a member of the F2K board and volunteers once a month with her community group from Stonegate Fellowship to pack sacks.

"As the program expands into Midland, we figured we needed to expand the number of volunteers from Midland, too," said Careless. "It's a program desperately needed in town that so many people aren't aware of. We're hoping to raise that awareness."

In 2012, the F2K board decided to expand the program to Midland and partnered with the Jubilee Center to establish the program in MISD.

"It's a great program and we like what they do, so we decided to offer Crockett up as the first Food 2 Kids program in Midland and serve as the administrative/liasion arm in Midland," said Greg Clark, executive director of the Jubliee Center, a nonprofit outreach on Andrews Highway which holds a food pantry two Saturdays each month.

"Having a program like this is very valuable for our community. If you have one kid going hungry all weekend, that's a problem" he said.

F2K and local faith-based ministries provide backpack programs for 12 of MISD's 24 elementary campuses, Moss said.

Though programs vary slightly from campus to campus, Moss said all student participants are identified under the same criteria and use the same forms and parent notification letters.

Moss said that this year he is requiring schools to track data -- absences, referrals to the office, visits to the nurse and test scores -- on all students who receive some sort of weekend food.

At the end of the year, there will be enough data to evaluate the impact that's being made in students' lives, Moss said.

"We'll have data that will either show that all of those things became worse for those kids, stayed the same or they've improved," Moss said.

Campbell said in ECISD the number of absences and referrals for students in the F2K program has dropped, while there has been an increase in parent participation.

"For some reason that we don't understand or can't explain, we've seen parents get involved with their children's schools once their kids start receiving food," Campbell said.

Students in the F2K program don't typically come from families on SNAP or welfare, but from working families that are in a bad situation, often dealing with a family illness, divorce or living on a fixed income, Campbell said.

"These are working parents that go to work every day and, once they make the mortgage and car payments, don't always have money left over to buy groceries," Campbell said. "They make too much money to qualify for federal programs but not enough to always provide."

To continue expansion of the F2K program, Campbell said the West Texas Food Bank is actively looking to purchase a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Midland. This would allow Midland sacks to be packed and provide more space in the Odessa warehouse for expansion of the F2K program, Campbell said.

Wiehle and Campbell said the slow-paced growth of F2K to additional schools has been intentional.

"We don't want to go into a school and tell them we're funding them unless we can do it forever. These are kids who have been let down time after time and we don't want to contribute to that," Wiehle said.

Each sack costs $4 to feed a child over the weekend and $168 can feed a child for year. Providing weekend meals for one elementary school ranges from $20,000 to $30,000 a year, Wiehle said.

"We're a very wealthy and very giving community, but there are those people that are caught and need our help," Clark said.

F2K's growth to other Midland schools will depend on the amount of community support that is received, Wiehle said.

The nonprofit has established two bank accounts, one for Midland donations and one for Odessa donations to ensure that all money donated is reinvested in the community it's meant for, Wiehle said.

Midlanders wishing to donate can send checks to Food 2 Kids, PO Box 50785, Midland, TX 79710. Those interested in helping during monthly sacking events can call the Junior League of Odessa at 332-0095.

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