ROGERSVILLE – Students filled the West Greene High School cafeteria Thursday, waiting in the assembly-line ritual to load their trays with the day’s lunch offerings.
Soon, the room would be empty, except for cafeteria workers busily wiping off tables and tying off huge black trash bags that would be carried to the nearest Dumpster.
But this was Thursday and another assembly line was about to form, just as it does every Thursday around 12:30 p.m. There is food, of course, but not the usual cafeteria fare. And there are students waiting in line, but they hold plastic bags, not plastic trays.
In about 15 minutes, these middle and high school students who report to the cafeteria promptly at 12:45 p. m. will pack 54 bags that will be placed in six cardboard boxes – two marked for Graysville Elementary, two marked for Springhill-Freeport Elementary, and two marked for the middle school.
These 54 plastic bags labeled for those three locations contain about a dozen food items that will be discretely placed into the backpack of a student in kindergarten through sixth grade who has qualified for the West Greene School District Backpack program, or as some like to call it, The Weekend Food Program.
Students who are in the free lunch program receive the food at their respective schools each Friday to make sure there is enough food at the home over the weekend.
“What is so eye-opening is that last year, when the program kicked off, there were 24 students in the program,” said Amy Keeler, director of food services for West Greene School District. She coordinates the program by selecting and ordering food and overseeing packing and distribution.
This is her first year in the district and she did not hesitate to continue the program launched by her predecessor, Martin Lorenzo, West Greene’s previous food service director.
“It would be great if we didn’t have to do this, but when the number of students who qualify more than doubles in a year, I am going to make sure they do not return to school hungry on Monday,” Keeler said,.
Keeler lines up cases of food on cafeteria tables and has the shopping bags ready for Jackie Slogan’s gifted students who pack them. To protect the confidentially of the student recipients, Keeler, not the student volunteers, tags each bag with the recipient’s first name, homeroom and school. The boxes are then packed and delivered to the schools.
And while Keeler spearheads the program from the high school, she has a “few good women” who lend an invaluable hand.
First, there is Donna Dire, a school counselor with Intermediate Unit 1, who delivers the food boxes to Graysville and Springhill-Freeport elementary schools. Tonya Meek takes charges of making sure the bags are distributed to the sixth graders in the middle school.
Keeler explained on Fridays, teachers discretely place the food packs into the students’ backpacks at a time when students are at recess to protect their privacy.
When Keeler orders food from the district’s food purveyor, she places two orders – one for the general student population and another order for the weekend food program.
The backpack program doesn’t cost the school district anything, thanks to grants from Alpha Natural Resources and donations from the West Greene Lions Club. This money goes directly to the Community Foundation of Greene County, which serves as the fiscal agent and pays the invoices for the backpack food.
Keeler said the average cost of the food is $243 a week or $4.50 per student.
A similar program operates in Carmichaels Area School District, thanks to the efforts of Sean Stark, Carmichaels food service director.
The programs in these school districts are not one-year projects that can be funded and just carry on. The funds need to grow and the pot needs to be built up, said Bettie Stammerjohn, executive director of the Community Foundation.
“The school districts cannot support the programs with today’s tight budgets so it is imperative that private monies continue to flow in, Stammerjohn said.
The food packed Thursday is very shelf-stable and user-friendly so the kids can prepare it themselves.
There were Sun Chips, noodles, Snack Packs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, apple sauce, ready to eat canned vegetable soup, dried food packs, crackers, Pop Tarts, a chocolate chip oatmeal bar an d peanut butter.
“A one-pound bag of pasta is included each week as an offering to assist other children that may be in the home as well. Items requiring refrigeration are not offered for food safety reasons,” she said.
School personnel have reported seeing kids come to school and notice it is obvious some haven’t eaten over the weekend. At lunch, they are socking food way, trying to get seconds and getting food for their friends.
Fortunately, there are options, thanks to these caring individuals and businesses that have joined forces to ensure food is available.