Fridays are usually the better-attended days at Engelhard Elementary School. Before the final bell rings for the weekend, students line up and walk through "buffet style" tables to collect boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of soup and bags of pretzels. For many of Engelhard's students, this will be their only source of food until Monday morning.
With more than 85 percent of its 450 students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, the Louisville, Kentucky school participates in several programs to make sure students are properly fed. In addition to free lunch, every child in the building receives breakfast in class and fresh produce to take home two or three times per week.
While these programs keep kids fed in school, students lose access to their free breakfasts and lunches on weekends: that's where Blessings in a Backpack comes in. In 2005, an Engelhard teacher noticed her students had trouble focusing on Mondays because they were hungry. She started sending them home with bags of food on the weekend, a gesture that grew into Blessings in a Backpack. Engelhard was the first of now 734 sites nationwide where the organization provides weekend meals for kids living in food-insecure households.
Interactions between students and the Engelhard Family Resource Center Coordinator, Regina Jackson-Willis, illustrate the gravity of the situation at schools across the country. One day, Jackson-Willis approached a particular student to ask why the collar of his shirt was shredded. "He said to me in a matter of fact tone, 'Ms. Regina, when I get hungry, I just chew on my shirt until I am not hungry anymore,'" Jackson-Willis says. Another child told her they eat paper to suppress hunger pangs.
Jackson-Willis and other educators in the building say they see an enormous impact made by access to food for the weekend. Third grade teacher Charity Garnett remembers a student who continually asked her when the Blessings in a Backpack program would start for the new school year. The student told her, "My family doesn't have food. We all eat this food, it's not just for me."
Jackson-Willis says Blessings in a Backpack's importance to this particular child is not unique. "[The program] is a weekend lifeline for our students," she says. "We may not be able to remove all the barriers and traumas that our students have to endure when they leave our care, but one thing's for sure: our students know that if they come to school, they will eat. Blessings in a Backpack is a big part of taking care of that need."