Right after school was out Thursday afternoon, Cheri Looman and her fourth-grade grandson, Nathan, headed straight to the back room of the Winona Volunteer Services food shelf.
A stack of brand-new backpacks waited there for them, ready to be filled.
With help from Cheri’s friend, Barb Sanders, they counted out boxes of raisins, ramen, microwavable dinners, juice boxes, cereal, fruit snacks, granola bars and other goodies -- making sure each pile had everything it needed before they stuffed it all in.
The next day, Cheri would deliver the packs to Madison Elementary School, where teachers would hand them out to kids in need.
The three were working as part of a community-wide chain of organizers, volunteers and supporters with the Food for Thought program, which works to make sure school-age kids in Winona have enough to eat when they’re not in school.
Looman, the volunteer coordinator with Pleasant Valley Church, has been packing those backpacks since the program began four years ago. She’s brought Nathan, now 9, along for the past two.
“I have grandchildren that age – it just tugs at your heart strings,” Looman said. “My biggest reason (for getting involved) was I don’t like to see kids hurt.”
‘We help them’
Food for Thought – run through a partnership between Winona Area Public Schools, Winona Volunteer Services and area churches – provides extra food in backpacks for school-age kids to take home over weekends and school breaks.
It’s all food that kids can prepare for themselves, without having to rely on the help of an adult. Enough food is also included in the backpacks for any additional children in the home between 3 and 15 years old.
Behind the scenes, it works like this: each participating school is partnered with a local church, which is responsible for picking up the backpacks, filling them with food, and delivering them back to the schools. Winona Volunteer Services supplies the food and the Slaggie Family Foundation provides the funds to buy it. Kids return the empty backpacks Monday morning and the process starts all over again.
How kids become enrolled in the program is exclusively up to the teachers.
If they believe a student may have a need, they reach out to families and let them know about the program. If they’re interested, the parents just sign a permission slip and the food starts coming.
That’s it. There’s no income requirements. No questions asked.
“If they feel there’s a need, we help them,” said Emily Cassellius, a Washington-Kosciusko Elementary School teacher who helped launch the program with Volunteer Services executive director Sandra Burke.
Seeing a need
The program started in October 2011 with a pilot program at W-K after Cassellius had begun more and more to hear troubling comments coming from her third-grade students.
A mom wasn’t going to be home to cook dinner that weekend. There was only ketchup in the house and they didn’t know what they were going to have to eat.
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It worried her.
“If kids aren’t hungry, they can focus on their learning,” Cassellius said. “But if kids are focused on being hungry, or worrying if they’re going to have food over the weekend, they really aren’t focused on what teachers in the classroom are trying to teach them.”
A significant number of Winona-area children know that worry. In WAPS last year, 1,210 students – or 38 percent of the district’s total enrollment – qualified for the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-price meals to low-income students during the week.
On days those kids aren’t in school, having enough to eat for some of them can be a problem.
“A lot of families have a hard time feeding their kids on the weekends,” said Sam Wagner, a school counselor who works at Madison Elementary School and the Area Learning Center and serves as the Food for Thought coordinator at Madison.
“They rely on that breakfast at school and school lunches, so weekends can be really hard,” she said.
Burke was aware of a weekend feeding program for children going on in Rochester. So was Check Peterson at the Edge Church in Winona. They came together with Cassellius – on the Volunteer Services’ board of directors – to launch the program that first fall.
It grew fast.
By December, Food for Thought had expanded to all five elementary schools in Winona, with churches stepping in to help each one.
In just that first year, 185 kids from 69 families took part.
Finding a solution
That rapid growth both speaks to the community’s willingness to help – and to families’ need, Burke said.
So along with the food, volunteers include in the backpack flyers with other resources for families, like lists of free meals in town throughout the week and contact information for the food shelf.
As the program has grown, teachers seem to have become more aware of services available in the community as well, Burke said, and have become more able to help families out -- sometimes calling Volunteer Services on their behalf or at least pointing families in the right direction.
Teachers have really embraced that responsibility, Cassellius said – even though it’s not necessarily part of their job description.
“We know we’re really educating the whole child,” Cassellius said. “It’s not just reading and math and writing anymore -- it’s really, are these kids taken care of and how can we help them?”
Food for Thought happily gives them one more avenue to be able to do that, she said.
And easily. These days, the program runs pretty much flawlessly, Cassellius said. There are hardly any issues; the bags are always there. And to this day, they haven’t had to seek out a single volunteer – the volunteers all came to them.
“It’s the fabric of our community that realizes there’s no reason anyone has to go hungry -- especially a young kid,” Burke said. “And so we rally, I think, around supporting that mission.”
“A lot of families have a hard time feeding their kids on the weekends.”
Sam Wagner, counselor, Madison Elementary School
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