By Rebecca Fiedler
Many children in McLennan County will go home from school Fridays and not eat a meal until Monday morning at school breakfast. Pack of Hope, a local non-profit organization, is fighting to put an end to such a situation.
“There are over 26,300 children in McLennan County who are eligible for free and reduced lunch,” said Jane Bounds, president and co-founder of Pack of Hope. She said most of these students go all weekend without food.
Pack of Hope provides children with a backpack full of food each weekend of the school year. To qualify to receive a Pack of Hope weekly food supply, a child must be on a free or reduced lunch program at their school, Bounds said.
A fourth of youths suffer from food insecurity, Bounds said. In McLennan County the poverty rate is 27 percent, which is almost twice the national average.
“We have heard stories of children who’ve just said they had water,” Bounds said. “We’ve heard children who have climbed into the dumpster after school is out to see if they could find anything. We had an athlete who lived off potato chips for a whole weekend.”
Pack of Hope caters to McLennan County, which has 18 school districts. This year Pack of Hope is able to provide food to 12 of these districts.
“The need is great, and it’s unfortunate that we don’t have the funds to be able to feed all these children,” Bounds said.
Pack of Hope is feeding over 300 children this year, Bounds said. The organization had a grant in the past years that allowed them to feed over 600, but that grant money has been spent.
“It’s very difficult to tell these children, ‘Sorry, darling. You’re not going to get anything this year,’” Bounds said. “You know, it just breaks your heart.”
Pack of Hope is run entirely by volunteers, Bounds said. All money goes directly to filling packs, and the office of the organization is the back of Bounds’s van, as well as a local Starbucks. Baylor students from the Baylor chapter of the American Medical Students Association volunteer with the organization, she said. Bounds added that she encourages Baylor to get involved in helping Pack of Hope.
“Anything that you kids could do would just be awesome,” she said, addressing Baylor students.
Linda King, food service director at Connally ISD, said Connally has been receiving food from Pack of Hope for three years. This is the first kind of weekend-food access that Connally has been able to provide for any of its students, she said.
“We receive 20 a week, and we split those between the four schools,” King said.
King said McLennan County has its share of homeless children.
“We have a lot more homeless children than we’ve ever had before,” she said.
The individual school districts pick up food from the company Sodexo each Wednesday, Bounds said. Counselors at the schools decide each year which children will receive the bags. Fridays the children are given the food discreetly, Bounds said. A $195 donation provides a child with a backpack for both semesters of a school year. Bounds said she encourages donations.
“We’re young, so it’s been very difficult to get grants, because you have to have a history,” Bounds said.
Every week children in the program receive fresh produce, a container of juice and a bottled water, and the rest varies, Bounds said. Often they receive a high-protein brownie and a fresh baked biscuit. They may get tuna and crackers, a pudding cup, Pop Tarts and a fruit cup. It depends on what food Pack of Hope can get that week, Bounds said. Packs of food are divided amongst school districts in accordance with a mathematical formula that looks at the amount of children in each district who qualify for a free or reduced lunch. It is then up to the district to decide which children receive the packs of food, Bounds said.
“Usually the school counselors are the ones who work the closest with the children and know the needs of the children,” she said.
Pack of Hope’s website includes a wish list of food items for the weekend meals, listing various fruits and non-perishables, juices, cereal and hygiene items.
Bounds said those at Pack of Hope are already getting reports from schools that attendance on Fridays is better because children come to receive their food. There is also more attendance on Mondays because the children have had food over the weekend and can function more normally, Bounds said. Children are also more able to study for tests because they are more nourished, she said.
“The way I feel about it – these children are our future,” Bounds said. “And we have got to make sure they get an education, and they’re not going to be able to get an education if they have food insecurities, sitting in school being hungry or sick because they’re so hungry.