For one Lincoln college student, hunger was common in her household growing up. Her mother battled alcohol addiction, leaving the student to look after her brothers, beginning in elementary school.
But despite a troubled home life, things began turning around. While attending Lincoln North Star, the student maintained above-average grades, was involved in extracurricular activities and volunteered at multiple community agencies. She now attends Nebraska Wesleyan University.
Today, her mom is sober, has a job and is seeking help for mental and physical problems.
The student credits the Food Bank and it’s BackPack program for making the difference.
“There are many reasons for this change, and the Food Bank’s BackPack program is one of them,” the North Star 2017 graduate wrote in an essay that was part of her successful application to the Food Bank’s college scholarship program.
When the BackPack program was started at Clinton Elementary 14 years ago, it served 50 students. Today, it helps 3,000 students in 42 Lincoln public schools and five Lincoln Catholic schools. The backpacks go out every Friday to provide food for the weekend, rotating between six different meals, including cereal, pasta, tuna, pudding and canned vegetables, said Jason Helgren, Food Bank of Lincolns’ child hunger coordinator.
While similar programs exist in other states, many of those only serve individual-sized items that only feed the students. Lincoln’s program provides food that could essentially feed the entire family for the weekend.
‘Sometimes students and their families are unable to afford food and the only time students eat are during school hours,” he said. “The BackPack program is a way to help these students and their families until students return to school on Monday.”
The Food Bank’s BackPack program focuses on students who qualify for their school’s free lunch program, as these students may be considered “food insecure.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as lacking consistent access to adequate food.
In Lancaster County, 20 percent of children were considered food insecure in 2017.
But the BackPack program is just one of many used to combat childhood hunger. The Food Bank and Lincoln Public Schools, jointly and individually, offer several programs aimed to help with food insecurity.
One of those, the Food Bank’s food market, is similar to the BackPack program, but it is a monthly food distribution program. Students and their families are able to pick out their own food and receive about 20 pounds of food.
The LPS Emergency Pantry program, sponsored by the Food Bank of Lincoln and LPS, allows any student, parent, teacher or faculty member in need of food to use the pantry once a month. The pantry is open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 3:00 p.m.- 5:30 p.m. Each family can get between 30 to 35 pounds of food depending on their family size.
“The food market program is good for a larger school with higher numbers of students in need,” Helgren said. “They’re able to take what they want and not take an item they don’t want, which can be available to someone. On the other hand, the LPS Emergency Pantry is good for families that need food now, rather than waiting for the scheduled time of the month.”
While the Food Bank of Lincoln provides many programs to help with food insecurity in Lincoln, LPS plays a large and vital role.
Nearly 50 percent of LPS students participate in the free and reduced lunch program, according to Lincoln Vitals Signs 2017 Annual Report. This program offers free or discounted meals to those in need. Families may qualify based on income guidelines set-up by the USDA and the Nebraska Department of Education’s Nutrition Services.
For LPS administrators, staff and teachers, fighting hunger is an important mission. If students are focusing on being hungry, then they’re not focusing on what is being taught in the classrooms, according to Lynn Goering, dietitian for LPS Nutrition Services.
“If they have breakfast and lunch, students will be better behaved and will be better able to learn,” she said. “Having good, balanced meals will help them be more focused in the classroom and ultimately help them to be the more successful.”
All of these programs are designed to help families stretch their budget and help them stay on top of their bills, in hopes that one day they’ll be in a position to not need these programs anymore, Helgren said.
He would like to see the BackPack program offered at as many schools as possible.
“There are going to be families in need at every school, and each year we get closer and closer to offer these programs at most schools in Lincoln,” he said. “These programs make students feel like they’re able to help their families when they are struggling and that’s always nice to know.”