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Keeping kids fed on the weekends

BY LINDLEY ESTES

Hunger doesn’t go away during the weekend for students who receive free- and reduced-price meals at public schools.

In fact, Saturday and Sunday can be more stressful for area families struggling to put food on the table.

Food–4–Kidz, a weekend feeding program sponsored by the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank, ensures that about 300 local children are not hungry during weekends.

Bags of food, packed by volunteers at the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank, are distributed to area schools, and then are given to students on Friday afternoons.

Oya Oliver, CEO of the food bank in Spotsylvania County, said the demand for the program has gone up in the past few years and almost 400 children are on the waiting list for weekend food.

The program costs the food bank about $200 to feed one child for nine months. The money to support the program comes largely from donations.

The food bank serves residents of Planning District 16, which includes the city of Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford. The area is the fourth-largest and fastest-growing of Virginia’s 21 planning districts, according to the George Washington Regional Commission, which deals with a host of regional issues.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, during the 2011–12 school year, more than 16,000 children in the region qualified for free meals through the National School Lunch Program.

There was a 7 percent increase from the 2010–11 year. The year before, there was a 9 percent rise.

Another 5 percent increase is expected for this school year. That’s another 803 students.

At Drew Middle School in Stafford County, about 20 students benefit from the Food–4–Kidz program, said Principal Catherine Williams.

About one-third of Drew Middle’s students receive free or reduced-price meals, which Williams said is one of the highest ratios in the county.

“We know in education that if kids are hungry they cannot do their best in school,” she said. “We don’t want children to be hungry during the school week, and we don’t want children to be hungry over the weekend.”

This is the second year that the middle school has participated in Food–4–Kidz. Williams said that the children are always excited to receive food for the weekend, especially the juice, pudding and granola bars.

Jenny Errico, family and community partnerships coordinator for Stafford County Head Start, gives Food–4–Kidz bags to the 15 neediest children in the Head Start program.

She said the students who receive the bags are appreciative. She received drawings from some of the children last year and was thanked by parents.

Thirty-three children at Hugh Mercer Elementary in Fredericksburg benefit from Food–4–Kidz. Hugh Mercer began participating in the program in January 2011. It started with 11 children, but that number quickly grew.

Sandy Gillenwater, assistant principal at Hugh Mercer, said there is still room for the program to grow at her school.

She said she is excited and grateful the community is involved in the project.

“It’s a really heartwarming feeling to give out a bag,” she said. “They’re very excited to come get the food. They feel like they’re part of a club. The children come up to me the next week and tell me what they’ve eaten.”

Gillenwater wrote down responses from the students who received the bags of food in the spring.

She said one kindergartner told her last year after the program began, “The bags are very special to me because I get them on Friday. I think about them every day. Mom always lets me have something after dinner. I like the Cheez-Its the most. I do not eat it all up at once because I want to share it with my friend McKenzie.”

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976

lestes@freelancestar.com

WANT TO HELP?

Food–4–Kidz, sponsored by the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank, provides weekend meals for children who benefit from free- and reduced-price meals during the school week. The program depends largely on donations.

For information about how to volunteer or donate, visit fredfood.org or contact the food bank at 540/371-7666 or info@fredfood.org.

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