CLAY COUNTY – According to the School Nutrition Association and Feeding America, one in eight children in America live in households without consistent access to adequate food. In Florida alone, …
CLAY COUNTY – According to the School Nutrition Association and Feeding America, one in eight children in America live in households without consistent access to adequate food. In Florida alone, more than 600,000 children are facing food insecurity.
Every Monday morning, cafeteria workers and food service operators witness hunger on the faces of students who are eagerly waiting for a school breakfast after a long weekend without enough to eat.
They gobble down pizza or baked spaghetti at lunch and finish their classmates’
leftovers. And what food they can stash away, they shove in their backpacks for later.
The truth is, many students don’t know where their next meal is coming from. When families lack the financial resources to pack food or send their children with a nutritious breakfast, school lunch may be their kids’ only meals of the day– But the nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack is filling that gap.
The national program began in Louisville, Kentucky, 15 years ago to help mobilize neighborhoods to ensure children do not go hungry on the weekends. During the 2022-2023 school year, Blessings in a Backpack secured 175,700 bags of food for 4,500 students on the First Coast.
The national organization has served students in Clay, Duval and St. Johns Counties since 2005.
“We are a food assistance program for students who are in the free or reduced lunch scenario. So these kids, when they qualify for the free and reduced meal plan, a lot of times, if they don’t eat at school, they don’t eat at all,” said Sean Stenson, board member and volunteer at the Clay County Chapter.
“Going from a Wednesday afternoon to a Thursday morning without eating is one thing. We have all missed a meal. You will not feel well, but you can pull it off. But when you think about Friday afternoon to Monday morning – that’s a whole other ballgame.”
Through public donations and sponsorships with local businesses and charities, Blessings in a Backpack distributes pre-packaged meals to more than 200 students on free and reduced lunch in the county.
Pre-packaged food is purchased locally, ordered through Sysco Services, or donated. Blessing’s team of incredible volunteers fill bags with a couple of breakfast items and snacks to sustain students when they’re home on the weekends.
“It’s primarily for younger children. It’s for younger hands, so they can open it up, and it’s ready to eat. They don’t need anyone to cook it for them. Nothing needs to be refrigerated. If they are hungry, they can just eat it,” Stenson said.
The program works with a team of nutritionists to develop nutritious weekend menus. The food given to the kids is shelf stable, easy to open, and requires no preparation.
“It’s all name-brand stuff but with 30% lower sugar than something you would get off the grocery store shelf,” Stenson added.
It costs the district about $100 to buy the packs for one student for a year. According to Stenson, 5,500 students in Clay County qualify for weekend food assistance, putting the yearly total around $550,000.
“Unfortunately, there are more kids than we can cover. But we have grown steadily over the years,” he said.
On July 21, the local nonprofit group, the 100+ Women of Who Care About Clay County, hosted its 10th meeting. The Clay County chapter was launched in the fall of 2020 by a group of women wanting to combine their donations to impact local nonprofits.
Members donated $115,000 to organizations in and serving Clay County, including First Coast Blessings in a Backpack, which will receive 50% of this quarter’s giving total.
“They have a quarterly meeting, and we were nominated to do a five-minute presentation on the organization. We presented, and then they voted on which nonprofits they think most deserved. We were fortunate enough to get first choice,” Stenson said.
With the donations, Blessings in a Backpacks’ First Coast Branch will start a foodbank for Clay County schools.
“So if a teacher identifies a child who needs food, they can contact us, and we will have this pull of dollars to make sure this child is fed. It’s specific to Clay County only,” Stenson said.
Stenson expects the demand for food will only grow.
“Five dollars feeds a kid for an entire weekend. It’s $100 to feed a kid for an entire weekend. We have all gone out to dinner and sent more than that on one meal,” Stenson said.
Without the help of local individuals and businesses providing donations, these children may otherwise go hungry.
“When we connect with a sponsor, we want them to sponsor us for years to come, not just short term. We don’t want kids to get fed and then not get fed. We want sponsors to commit to at least a few years, and then we can re-evaluate the situation and maybe fill those holes if they opt out,” he said. “Just to know you are doing something so impactful for the children- that’s a big deal.”
Your donation is more than just a meal. Children need nutrients so they can grow, develop and focus on learning instead of thinking about the food they need. When children eat better, they learn better, Stenson said.
“When they show up, they tend to learn something, and their grades go up. We get better attendance and better grades. They feel good, so they are more equipt for the day.”
For more information or to donate, visit blessingsinabackpack.org or contact Brent Glass, VP of chapter relations, at email@example.com. To learn more about the 100+ Women of Who Care About Clay County and how to get involved, send them a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“People want to help, and they want to help our children. Our ability to come together and help, it’s very powerful. I love the giving spirit. This city is about taking care of its own,” Stenson said. “Again, we’re just one of many nonprofits that benefit from that.”