For hungry kids, 'backpack clubs' try to fill gap
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
By Roger Thurow, The Wall Street Journal
TYLER, Texas -- Seven-year-old Cody Lozano and his 9-year-old sister Cherokee hurried into their house on a recent Friday afternoon and emptied their school backpacks. On the kitchen table, next to a family Bible and a pile of bills, each child laid out a box of Special K cereal, a carton of milk, a package of peanut-butter crackers, a cup of fruit cocktail, a bag of animal crackers, a carton of apple juice, a pull-top can of beans and franks and one of rice and beans.
It wasn't a weekend homework assignment. It was their weekend breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"Without this food, I don't know what we would do," says their mother, Karen Lozano. In a town where the oil boom once created dozens of millionaires and where azaleas and roses now attract tourists, Ms. Lozano, 41, and her two youngest children sit in a living room beneath a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. Family health problems and sporadic work for her husband have reduced their income and increased their expenses, she says.
"Last week it was, 'Do we buy groceries or pay the water bill?' This week, it is groceries or the gas bill," she says. "With the backpacks, I know that at least there's something for the kids to eat."
Cody and Cherokee are members of the Backpack Club at Douglas Elementary School. Every Friday during the school year, just before the final bell, they and 70 schoolmates from low-income families rush into the auditorium and wait in line for backpacks filled with food. In the past year, thousands of other children have begun forming similar Friday afternoon lines in schools across 30 states, from big cities like Chicago, to postcard places like Sonoma County, Calif., to rural hamlets surrounded by corn and wheat fields like Hawkeye, Iowa.
On their shoulders, the children carry the backpacks as well as the weight of America's hunger paradox: want amid plenty. The backpacks are an emergency fix to a problem that has defied solution, despite a rising economy and tens of billions of dollars of government spending on nutrition programs, including food stamps, school lunch and aid to mothers and young children.
The war on poverty has ebbed, flowed and changed direction in the four decades since Lyndon Johnson launched it in 1964, and in the decade since Bill Clinton signed a bill that he said would "end welfare as we know it." With little appetite in Washington for costly new government-administered efforts to address poverty, all sorts of small-scale efforts are springing up: some privately funded, entrepreneurial efforts, others government-funded experiments. None are sufficiently large to cure poverty, nor do they pretend to such an ambitious goal. Instead, they are attempts to make life better for those who live in poverty or to test new approaches to a very old problem.
The fraction of Americans living below the official poverty line fell significantly during the booming economy of the 1990s. Then it turned up in the recession of 2001 and an ensuing recovery that lifted the fortunes of the best-off Americans more than it did those at the bottom. Alternatives to the official measure show much the same pattern.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says government surveys show that 11.9 percent of U.S. households -- 13.5 million in all -- were uncertain they could afford to feed their families at some point during the year in 2004. About a third of those, or 4.4 million households in all, said that at least one household member went hungry at least some time during the year because the family couldn't afford enough food.
At the same time, the economy has been growing in many regions around the country. Tyler, Texas, for example, with its oil, retail and medical-services base, has hummed along with the entire state recently. Yet the USDA report also shows Texas has become the hungriest state in the country. In the 2002-2004 period, 16.4 percent of Texas households were food insecure, up from 13.9 percent in 1999-2001.
"There is a rising tide, but it's not one that lifts all the boats," says Ray Perryman of the Perryman Group, an economic-analysis firm that tracks the Texas economy. "Some sink along the way."
A recent survey by America's Second Harvest, a network of more than 200 food banks across the nation, indicates that those relying on pantries and emergency kitchens include a large number of working families who aren't making enough to make ends meet, particularly with high heating and gas prices and medical bills. Mr. Perryman says the adults in such families generally don't have the education or skills demanded by high-tech jobs being created.
"Hunger is a hidden issue, particularly in Tyler, where unemployment is low and there's a lot of economic activity," says Robert Bush, executive director of the East Texas Food Bank. "But every day, we touch people who have to make hard choices about food: pay medical bills or buy food, repair car or buy food."
The Second Harvest survey also paints a portrait of the hungry at odds with common stereotypes: Only 12 percent of those served by the nation's food banks are homeless; 93 percent are American citizens; 40 percent are white; nearly half live in rural or suburban areas; and, more than one-third of the hungry households have at least one working adult. In these households, the survey found, parents are often working nights and over the weekends, meaning children sometimes must fend for themselves at mealtimes.
And there are a lot of those children. Second Harvest estimates that of the 25 million people served at its network of food pantries and feeding centers last year, nine million were children.
The federal government appropriates about $12 billion annually for child nutrition programs, meant to provide a safety net, says a spokeswoman for the USDA. But when gaps develop, efforts of community groups and food banks are welcome, she says. "We cannot do it alone."
For decades, Washington has funded free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts in schools. In the last school year, 17.5 million children received free or reduced-price lunch and 7.7 million participated in the breakfast program.
In more recent years, the government began supporting after-school snack and dinner programs as well as summer feeding centers, which are essentially day camps for hungry children with recreational activities scheduled around lunch.
"As a nation, we figured that should take care of the problem," says Lisa DeYoung, Second Harvest's director of programs. "But it doesn't. There are gaps in the system."
Like the weekends.
"On Friday at lunch, I see a kind of panic in some children that I didn't see before. They eat as much as they can," says Kim Matthews, youth-services coordinator in the Chapel Hill, Texas, school district. "Then on Monday at breakfast, they not only eat the food on their tray, but the food on the trays of the five kids next to them."
While some backpack-carriers say they jealously guard their food -- one boy says he hides it under his bed -- others say they share it with their families. At Annie Sims Elementary School in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, a 10-year-old named Low said he shared his milk with his grandmother, his crackers with an aunt and his Apple Jacks cereal with his older sister. Seven-year-old Leonard asked the school counselor for an extra jar of peanut butter for his mother.
The Arkansas Rice Depot, a food bank, started stuffing backpacks with food in 1995. A school nurse at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Little Rock told the food bank she was seeing a growing number of children with dizziness and stomachaches -- not from illness, but from hunger. The group sent food to the school, which sent it home with some students. When children carrying food reported they were being teased for being poor, the Depot put the food in backpacks that look like the ones most students use to lug books and supplies.
The teasing stopped, and the food bank took the backpack idea to schools around the state. As word spread, food banks and schools in other states began designing take-home meal packs for the neediest students. Kids are chosen for the backpack program by teachers and school counselors, nurses and social workers based on knowledge of the family backgrounds and the behavior of the children in the classroom. This year, Second Harvest says at least 70 food banks are distributing backpacks -- tens of thousands of them in an average week. Those numbers are expected to multiply next school year as Second Harvest rolls out the program across its nationwide network.
The backpacks are for the most part filled with child-friendly food: nutritious, easy to open and nothing requiring stove-top cooking. Empty backpacks are returned by students and refilled for the next week. The food in each backpack costs between $2 and $3, and, once filled, each weighs seven to 10 pounds.
"It's heavy," said a fifth-grader named Jocelyn as she hoisted her backpack at Jewett Elementary School in the Waterloo, Iowa, school system. "But it's a good heavy."
Funding for backpack programs -- to reimburse food banks that usually have to buy child-specific food -- has mostly come from local businesses, churches and community organizations such as the United Way in Waterloo and the Junior League, a women's group, in Tyler. In 2003, Hasbro Inc., the Pawtucket, R.I.-based toy and game maker, supported pilot programs in eight rural areas. Since then, it has donated more than $700,000 to help 36 programs get started. A few corporations, such as Beam Global Spirits & Wine Inc., based in Deerfield, Ill., are funding programs in counties where they have operations.
The pitch for support often takes donors by surprise. By the time Peggy Berry of the East Texas Food Bank finished her appeal to the Junior League in Tyler last year, many in the audience were in tears, according to several people who were there. "I had no idea that the city I lived in had such needs," says Stacy Panfil-Parsley, a Junior League member and a gymnastics coach. Now she volunteers to deliver backpack food to the schools.
On a spring day, the farmers of Iowa were preparing their fields for planting. At the food pantry in Waterloo, here in the nation's breadbasket, a line formed for food assistance. Families stream in for help at the rate of 1,100 a month. Five years ago, it was 500 a month. Throughout the 16-county area of northeast Iowa, 35,700 people a year are served by the food bank. Forty percent are children.
At Lowell Elementary School in Waterloo, three children explain why they are waiting for their backpacks. Third-grader Shaquia says her mother cleans buildings and "doesn't have enough money at home for food." Fifth-grader Ashley says her parents both work at a bakery and are now facing added expenses after a house fire. Jonathan, another fifth-grader, says his mother works the overnight shift at a hotel and often isn't home in time for breakfast.
LaTina Roby, the single mother of another backpack child, says she lost her job at a fast-food restaurant after she got sick. "A lot of times, the backpack gets us through the weekend," she says. "The milk is the best. Milk is expensive." Children are given milk in cartons that don't need refrigeration.
Across town, at Jewett Elementary, another mom, Michelle Morehouse, prepares 25 backpacks. The blue sacks are stuffed with four cups of applesauce, a can of spaghetti and meatballs, a can of beef stew, a jar of creamy peanut butter, two vanilla puddings, three cartons of strawberry milk, a box of reduced-sugar Cocoa Puffs and a pack of Scooby Doo baked graham-cracker sticks.
"I don't normally buy these kinds of things," says Ms. Morehouse, whose fifth-grade son Jacob brings a backpack home. Her husband is an hourly worker at a metal-fabrication plant. After paying the bills, she says she has about $75 a week left to buy groceries for her family of four at a discount supermarket and, once a month, at a meat locker.
In its report issued last year, the USDA said the typical U.S. household spends $40 per person each week for food.
Ms. Morehouse says she lost her job as an assistant manager at a gas-station convenience store in March. "Before then, I said, 'We don't need a backpack, give it to someone else'," she says. "Now it's a big help."
In east Texas, where the high price of oil is reinvigorating old fields, Steven Young, a music teacher at Douglas Elementary, played a classical-music CD as the Backpack Club kids jostled in line. "It calms them down," he says.
Cody and Cherokee Lozano patiently waited their turn. "I used to run into school on Mondays, I was so hungry," Cody said. Now he runs home on Fridays with his backpack.
At home, their mother ticked off the bills: Gas, $117. Water, $110 every two months. Rent, $300 a month. "How do they expect the average Joe to pay the bills and still eat?" she says.
Ms. Lozano once worked as a nurse but stopped to care for her children. Her seventh-grader suffers from a joint and bone ailment, she says, and Cody has epilepsy. She hopes to start classes at the local junior college to gain work as a specialized nurse.
Her husband and older son are construction workers, making as much as $13 an hour. But work can be sporadic and health problems also limit their earnings, she says. The family tries to set aside at least $50 a week for groceries, she says.
"We may be eating stuff you don't really want to eat all the time," she says. "The kids eat a lot of fried egg sandwiches. They hate beans. They're good, but not if you eat them every day."
The family cat saunters through the living room. Cody looks at his mom and asks, "Do we have tuna for him?"
She laughs. "He doesn't get tuna. We don't get tuna. If he wants to eat, he's got to catch a rat."
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