Food drive prevents a break in meals
Not only does spring break loom large for students who depend on school breakfasts and lunches to meet their nutritional needs, but this year, the timing is especially hard for families who rely on food stamps.
Spring break starts Monday and many families who use food stamps see the money run out by the end of the month. But an area food drive will help keep hundreds of homeless students in three area school divisions from going hungry this week.
The Faith and Leadership Center at the University of Mary Washington hosted the drive. The Baptist Collegiate Ministry runs the center, and leaders Gannon and Carey Sims partnered with some young-adult ministries looking for outreach opportunities.
Roy and Marissa Banks of Strong Tower Ministries and Ritta Armstead with Uth 4C Victory Ministries had a similar vision to help homeless teenagers.
They wanted to create a place for young homeless adults to live and to learn life skills.
But the group decided to start small. Armstead met Michelle Patton Swisher, a school social worker who helps homeless students in Spotsylvania County schools.
Swisher connected the group with social workers in Stafford County schools and Fredericksburg city schools.
They all said the same thing: Students need food when they’re not in school.
“The families rely on school for their two meals a day,” said Megan Hanson, a social worker with Fredericksburg schools. “So weekends, snow days and holidays can be really stressful.”
The combined ministries decided to hold a food drive. They started with a flier, which they posted on social media sites.
“It started on Facebook and Instagram,” Armstead said. “And God just moved it on up from there.”
Churches, youth groups, college students and businesses collected food, bringing it to the Center for Faith and Leadership. By this past Monday, the center was teeming with macaroni and cheese, cereal, diced fruits, peanut butter and oatmeal.
Volunteers sorted the donations into boxes and bags which will be delivered to the homeless families.
“This will alleviate some of the pressure and the stress families feel,” said Kathleen Fragosa, a social worker for Stafford schools, as she looked through the bags and boxes of foods.
Among the families who will benefit from the local food drive: Billy, Denise and their three teenage sons and daughter. The family, who asked that their last names not be used, moved to the Econolodge in Massaponax last October after Denise lost her job.
She quickly found two part-time jobs, but the combined paychecks bring in just half of what she made as the manager of an ice cream shop. And Billy works construction, but the snowy winter ravaged his income.
The back-to-back snowstorms packed a double whammy for the family, as Billy’s paychecks shrunk but the family’s grocery bill grew.
He has just gotten back into steady work. Denise still worries about feeding her children, who qualify for free school lunches, during their week off from school, especially as the family’s food stamps are stretched thin.
“We know it’s just supposed to be a supplement,” Billy said of food stamps, which is the commonly used name for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
But for Billy and Denise, it’s hard to pay the bills and put food on the table. They pay $280 per week to live in the motel, plus $140 per month to store their furniture. Every other week, Denise pays $60 to wash the family’s clothes at the laundromat. Billy often hand washes clothes in the bathtub to save money.
Denise tries to provide healthy food for her family, but between the constraints of cooking in a motel room and those of the family budget, it’s a challenge.
‘MILK IS A LUXURY’
Fragosa works with 208 families who qualify for homeless services through the school division. Under U.S. Department of Education guidelines, students are considered homeless if they live in motels, shelters, cars or tents or if they live doubled up with friends or relatives. Additionally, teens living on their own are considered homeless.
The food will also help 73 Spotsylvania families living in motels and 108 homeless students in Fredericksburg.
School social workers packed up their vehicles with the boxes and bags brimming with food and made plans to deliver the goodies to families before spring break.
The food drive also netted some money, which Swisher plans to use to buy milk to go with the donated cereal.
Sometimes, families living in motels hesitate to splurge on milk, because it costs nearly $4 per gallon and would take up most of the room in a small fridge.
“For them, milk is a luxury,” Swisher said.
Milk and cereal, peanut butter and granola bars aren’t directly linked to education, but Swisher and other school social workers said that giving those basics help form a foundation for learning.
They are taking several steps to feed students. In Spotsylvania County, the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank’s mobile pantry comes twice a month.
Stafford County has also teamed up with the food bank to help students.
And in Fredericksburg, city churches provide food so homeless high school students can eat over weekends.
“I call it ‘hangry,’ when I need to eat,” Hanson, the city social worker, said. “You can’t think without food, it has a lot to do with your mood and your ability to learn.”
Amy Umble: 540/735-1973
WANT TO HELP?
Homeless liaisons at area school divisions work to help students be prepared to succeed academically. This often entails providing basic support—toiletries, clothes and food. To help these efforts, contact one of the school social workers listed below:
Fredericksburg City Schools: Megan Hanson, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spotsylvania County Schools: Michelle Patton Swisher, mswisher @spotsylvania.k12 .va.us or 540/834-2500, ext. 1030.
Stafford County Schools: Kathleen Fragosa, 540/658-6500.