For the first time in its nine-year Southwest Florida history, Blessings in a Backpack has extended its program to feed low-income school children through the summer
While many people reading this story are coming back from or planning family staycations and vacations, a large percentage of local families aren’t trying to figure out which hotel gives them the best deal or location, they’re wondering where their next meal is coming from.
It’s a sad truth. There are children in our community who are hungry. During the school year, low-income students have access to free and reduced breakfast and lunch. Those meals are too often the only ones they receive. So what happens on the weekend?
That is where Blessings in a Backpack fills in the gap by sending students home with a backpack containing enough nutritional food to keep them fed through the weekend.
Cecilia St. Arnold, Executive Director of Blessings, says the figures are staggering, “Florida is number four in the nation in childhood hunger even though this is an agricultural state.”
Blessings in a Backpack started as a grassroots effort in Louisville where Scott Fischer and a group of his friends signed up for a golf tournament. Owner of Scott Fisher Enterprises, which includes Six Bends Harley Davidson, Fisher went for the fun, not realizing this fledgling charity was one of the beneficiaries.
The idea struck a cord, especially after discovering that 90% of students in title one schools in Lee County were on free and reduced lunches. He says, “I went to my buddies and said let’s put some money in and start the program.” The work done in Southwest Florida has been instrumental in helping Blessings in a Backpack form a national organization.
As the program grew locally, it was evident that a full-time administrator was needed, so Fischer brought in St. Arnold. She didn’t know the hunger problem in local schools was so vast until her daughter became a teacher. Her first job was at Fort Myers Middle School where she kept a mini–frig full of healthful snacks to give students who were so hungry, they’d fall asleep in class.
Besides sleeping in class, hungry kids are often late for school on Monday, and there’s a high absentee rate on Friday
Since implementing Blessings, school administrators report those numbers have improved dramatically. Some students are actually excited to be at school on Friday because they know they’ll be leaving with more than homework. Blessings in a Backpack
Every student at Tice Elementary is on free and reduced lunch according to Assistant Principal Arlene Kane. Every one of them gets their own backpack of food on Friday. “It makes a huge difference for parents. It’s one less thing they have to worry about, and kids aren’t coming to school on Monday starving because the last substantial meal they ate was lunch on Friday.”
Kane sees students returning on Monday better behaved, focused, and able to concentrate on learning. “Think about how you are at work when you are starving; your focus, your attitude. How much better do you work when your belly is full?” she asks. It’s the same for kids who are also still growing physically.
Continuing, the assistant principal says, “We are really thankful for Blessings as this is the first year we’ve been able to run the program over the summer. Summer school only goes Monday through Thursday, so until now, students were potentially going without food Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.”
When people ask Fischer why he invests so much time, effort, and money into Blessings he says, “It’s easy to say let’s help hungry kids, but the reality is all of these kids are potentially our employees. As an entrepreneur, I have an obligation to support education and make sure children are taken care of.”
60,000 children in Lee and Collier Counties qualify for help according to St. Arnold, but this year Blessings will only reach about 4,000; the need is tremendous.
It doesn’t take much to help
Fischer says, “We know not everyone can spend thousands, but it only takes $100 to feed a kid all year. $100! We need $100 donors.”