Students across the First Coast who depend on free or reduced cost meals at school are provided breakfast and lunch, five days a week. Unfortunately, some students who rely on their school’s cafeteria food don’t always have enough at home to keep them fed over the weekend.
A group of Duval and St. John’s County students, parents, teachers and administrators have pushed to solve this hunger puzzle, with the support of an initiative called Blessings in a Backpack.
The national Blessings in a Backpack program helps feed 66,000 students during the 38-week school year, and it costs about $100 per school year to cover those meals a student might miss. First Coast Blessings in a Backpack [FCBB] helps feed over 2,500 students in 16 Jacksonville schools, according to their website.
FCBB program coordinator Robbin Ossi helped kick off the initiative in St. John’s County seven years ago.
“Some friends of mine were used to volunteering in their kid’s classrooms,” Ossi said. “While they were down there volunteering, teachers were telling them they were pulling out drawers full of food, like snacks and things, and giving them to the kids throughout the day. And that’s when we found out about the hunger issues.”
Ossi’s efforts started from scratch, packing bags of food for kids each week with help from her daughter and friends. St. John’s Blessings in a Backpack expanded steadily, helping 600 students in need each week.
Last year, Ossi helped the St. John’s Blessings in a Backpack chapter merge with the Duval County group to form FCBB. Nearly 60 percent of Duval County students are on the free or reduced cost meal programs, and that figure rises each year.
Concerned parents aren’t the only ones fighting student hunger on the First Coast. There are student volunteers across Jacksonville who are willing to give up their free time to help feed those students who aren’t getting enough food.
Nease High School senior Oliver Hodge lends a helping hand three days a week for FCBB. It starts on Wednesday, when Hodge and his fellow volunteers plan, budget and purchase the food and snacks to be delivered on Friday.
“Basically there’s a set list of items that we get each week, and there’s some fluctuation towards the end,” Hodge said. “But there’s always a can of ravioli, there’s always Ritz crackers, there’s always applesauce and fruit and we try to always have as much fruit as we can.”
On Thursday the students pack the backpacks, assembly line style and pack them into Hodge’s car. Then on Friday, Hodge delivers the packed bags to students at the Webster School in St. Augustine.
“I think it has a huge impact on both of us because obviously, you know, it’s food. And it’s something that they really need to be comfortable,” Hodge said. “Even for the students who are giving, it sort of just instills, you know, a quality of giving in all of us.”
For the high school student volunteers, their experience with FCBB has certainly been humbling.
“I don’t think any of us really thought about, like, the impact that doing things like that has on our community before Blessings,” Hodge said.
The impact that FCBB leaves on students goes further than keeping them fed and healthy. Blessings in a Backpack, in association with Quaker Oats and global market research company Ipsos, has evaluated their impact on the students and found that 60 percent of students who benefit from the program find it easier to learn at school than before they received their backpacks.
According to the evaluation, 60 percent of those students have also been in less trouble and improved their school attendance with the help Blessings in a Backpack provides.
For more information on the FCBB initiative, you can visit their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/FirstCoastBlessings.