It’s early on a Monday morning and some young students are running down the hall of Kalfas Elementary School in Niagara Falls.
But they’re not playing a game or heading to gym class.
They’re starving for a meal.
In area school districts, both urban and rural, children from impoverished families get free breakfast and lunches at their schools. But on weekends and holidays, many go hungry.
To make sure the children – and their families – have nutritious meals over the weekend, the Food Bank of Western New York and its donors have teamed up to fill backpacks with food in 16 area schools on Fridays and before holidays. And there is a waiting list for 15 more schools, said Stephanie Lawson, the Food Bank’s grants and youth program supervisor.
“That food that we’re sending home for one child is often feeding their brothers, their sisters, the cousins that live in the household, the parents that live in the household,” Lawson said. “So then we increased the food even more.”
About half of Buffalo’s children live in impoverished households, according to a study based on 2011 census data.
More than 77 percent of Buffalo Public Schools children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to figures provided by the Partnership for Public Good.
This year, the 7,200 students in all public schools in Niagara Falls are eligible for free breakfast and lunch.
While many in Western New York may take for granted what is in their cupboard or refrigerator, for some families, there’s just nothing there.
The children at Kalfas in the Falls come looking for counselor Rebecca Tantillo for a backpack of food that they take home to eat over the weekend. Then, they return to the school for breakfast Monday morning.
“They are looking for me because they depend on this food and because I think it brings them some excitement and joy actually to bring home this food and show their families that they have something,” Tantillo said. “And it’s their little way of contributing back to their own family.”
The Food Bank backpack program began three years ago and touches students from Buffalo to Gowanda and Dunkirk to Niagara Falls.
More than 40,000 backpacks of food have been given out since the program started, according to the Food Bank.
The need is there, and schools are doing what they can to keep kids well fed.
At Community Charter School in Buffalo, the program filled about 125 bags of food per week last year.
That means more than a third of the student population participates, said Robin Michalski, food service manager.
“We do have a great need here,” Michalski said.
At the Niagara Charter School in Wheatfield, whose enrollment includes students from the Falls, between 2,000 and 2,500 bags were distributed to students last year, said school counselor Cheri Keetch.
When the school of 350 students joined the program a year ago, its participation in the backpack program was advertised in a newsletter sent home to parents.
“I got so many phone calls,” Keetch said.
Participating schools in the four counties served by the Food Bank also include six Buffalo public schools, and two charter schools in the city.
The program was originally intended to supplement what children were getting at home, Lawson said.
The portions at the beginning were for one child and came in prepackaged containers.
Based on surveys, it soon became obvious to organizers that the quality of the food needed to be improved and the amounts had to increase.
After the first year, foods such as cans of soup and boxes of macaroni and cheese were added as the agency piecemealed packages together, Lawson said.
The amounts going home, based on what the agency was hearing from those whom it was helping, increased after each of the first two years of the program.
At Kalfas, which is one of four Niagara County schools in the program and where about one in nine students participates, this is the second year for the program.
KeyBank recently donated $7,200 to keep the program going.
The school became eligible for the program because its students are already eligible for free breakfast and lunch.
All students in participating schools may receive the backpacks, though teachers and school staff who have the most direct contact with the students help identify which students appear to be in need of the extra food.
“A child who is not hungry is a child who will come and learn and give their best,” said Kalfas principal Mary Kerins. “And they’re able to come and stay focused on the things that are most important for us during a school day, which is their learning.”
In order to get a school started in the program, an organization must be willing to donate and become a school partner. Sometimes the Food Bank has grants available if no partner is found.
“We fight for the grants and what we can’t find in grants we find in sponsorships and business partners,” said Lawson, who has overseen the program for the Food Bank since it started. “But unfortunately the need is so great, we can’t possibly write enough grants.”
The first school to participate was Global Concepts Charter School in Lackawanna. It’s program started with donations from Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin-Robbins, Wegmans and a local Pepsi affiliate.
That school was in the program for two years but withdrew because it no longer saw a great need, Lawson said.
The take-home backpacks have a rotating menu. There are staples, like juice and milk, but the packages may also include rice and beans, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, or pasta and sauce.
The Food Bank works with schools in other ways, providing cooking classes to students and physical education classes involving nutrition.
Anyone interested in contributing to the food bank can donate via the agency’s website or by mail, designating their donation to the Backpack Program. Any companies interested in donating should contact Lawson at 935-6688.