October 2012
September 27, 2012

Tackling child hunger 1 backpack at a time

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Sullivan County BOCES educators Joanne Scialabba, Shirley Townsend and Phyllis Thomas-Moore coordinate the Snack Back Pack program. Photo by Katherine Van Acker.

School nurses are used to zeroing in on what hurts — and sometimes that means the pain of an empty stomach.

Sullivan County BOCES school nurse teacher Phyllis Thomas-Moore realized that many students in her district were hungry, especially on weekends. So she fostered a Snack Back Pack program to load backpacks with food every two weeks. Students in need now go home with supplies — soup, tuna fish and peanut butter for protein. Crackers, granola bars and macaroni and cheese for carbohydrates.

Think how much they mean to a person whose stomach is growling, and there is little to no food at home.

"You can't believe the difference it makes," said Thomas-Moore. "A hungry kid isn't going to function well in school," said Patrick McCarthy, a special ed teacher and president of the Sullivan County BOCES Teachers Association.

The local union regularly donates both food and money to Snack Back Packs, and teachers group together to "sponsor" their own backpack. At the start of this third year, the program has tripled to 65 packs.

"The exciting news about this project is that it is causing a chain reaction," said Thomas-Moore, a member of the SCBTA. She shared information on the program with the Western Sullivan United Teachers and SRPs local, which started a program one year ago, sending 40 backpacks out every other week.

"This is a union project," said Western Sullivan SRP leader Hilda Monfredo. "Our members (including retirees) donate food and money." Contributions also come from a local church, United Way, individuals and businesses.

"Our members are out there serving their communities again and again, showing up where needed," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president. She recently volunteered with members of the Arlington TA at a soup kitchen.

The community outreach stems from the union's involvement with the NYSUT Local Action Project; ATA members volunteer twice a month serving food at the pantry. NYSUT locals across the state have launched backpack programs and other efforts to feed the hungry.

Thomas-Moore began the program after reading an article in a local paper about how nearly half the students in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties depend on schools for food. She decided to round up her colleagues to make feeding children a priority.

Initially, the school's Wellness Team purchased 15 backpacks, and teachers and staff donated another eight. Students receiving the food have been recommended confidentially by an educator, social worker or a school nurse.

Special education students in a life skills program taught by SCBTA member Joanne Scialabba store the food as it is donated. They then take inventory — learning a job skill in the process. Sometimes the students go on shopping trips to purchase the food, developing another life skill.

"Everything is in plastic — fruit cups, raisins, peanut butter," said Thomas-Moore, who is a past NYSUT Community Service award winner. "It's stuff the kids can open up themselves."

One staff member donates fresh fruit. Another faithfully delivers two cases of ravioli every two weeks.

"The kids are very appreciative of anything they get," said McCarthy, who works with older students who are legally homeless. "And then you see them extending help to other people."