That there was enough food for two brothers is something that broke Erika Fierro's heart but also warmed it.
It troubled her that the need was there, but she was thankful the need could be met.
The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma supplies and delivers pre-assembled food sacks and backpacks to participating schools at no cost to the school.
On Fridays, school coordinators place the bags into the students' backpacks. Teachers and school personnel identify chronically hungry students and enroll them in the Food for Kids Backpack Program.
Fierro is the Food for Kids Program coordinator at Heronville Elementary, 1240 SW 29 in Oklahoma City.
Earlier this school year, a fourth-grader was referred to Fierro for the program. After receiving his referral form, she discovered he had a brother in the second grade.
“For a couple of weeks the fourth-grader took snacks enough for both of them until more backpacks arrived,” Fierro said, “and when I received the backpack order I was able to give the second-grader his own backpack. When I called him to pick it up, he was so excited. ‘My own backpack. Thank you so much. I will make sure and bring it back every week so on Friday you can give me more snacks.' It really touched me and made me super happy at how grateful and excited this little second-grader was.”
Hunger is a year-round issue for many Oklahomans, especially children. One in four children in Oklahoma may be going to bed hungry, according to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. The Food for Kids Backpack Program strives to alleviate the pangs of hunger that chronically hungry children experience.
Through the program, children receive a backpack full of kid-friendly, nonperishable and nutritious food on Friday to sustain them over weekends and school holidays.
After joining the program, most children pay better attention in class and improve their academic performance, said Angie Gaines, spokeswoman for the Regional Food Bank.
Last school year, the program served more than 13,500 chronically hungry elementary students in 475 schools in central and western Oklahoma.
They expect that number to continue to grow as this school year continues and more schools are added to the program.
Gaines said coordinators and teachers look for students who display signs of not getting enough nutrition, “anything from physical signs like cracked lips, weight loss, or difficulty concentrating to emotional/academic signs” as well as a sudden change in demeanor, declining grades or erratic attendance.
There were about 40 students receiving backpacks at Heronville in the fall. Now it's 36 with more being added in the school of 964 students, Fierro said.
At the beginning of the year, Fierro sent teachers and staff a training presentation regarding the program.
“The training informs the staff on how to know if a child is chronically hungry by looking at appearance, school performance, and what we know from the home environment,” Fierro said. “If the teacher believes the child fits this criteria, they fill out a Food for Kids referral form and turn it in to me and I make sure their name goes on our list and get them their own backpack and snacks as soon as I can.
“I also check if that referred student has any siblings at our school or at home, who can eat solids, and send home a snack bag for those children as well.”
The food bank started the backpack program in January 2003 in response to a firsthand account of an Oklahoma City elementary student who fainted on a Monday while waiting in the school lunch line, Gaines said.
The program was launched in five Oklahoma City schools serving 180 children.
It now serves 475 elementary schools in 53 counties across central and western Oklahoma, providing backpacks to more than 13,500 chronically hungry children each week during the 2011-12 school year. The program continues to expand, with new schools added each semester.
“The food bank personnel are always so helpful and polite from the person who changes the number of children served to the truck driver who delivers our snack boxes,” Fierro said. “I am so thankful to just be a part of this entire process.”