NORMAN — For the vast majority of Norman’s chronically hungry children, all that stands between them and the food they need is the awareness of those around them.
Administrators, teachers and staff in the Norman Public School district have spent many years developing partnerships within the community, resulting in an intricate network of resources and systematic efforts to help hungry students and families.
“We have excellent provisions within the district and our community has great mechanisms for kids in consistent need, but the biggest challenges are for those in sudden crisis, which is often the case with hungry students,” Superintendent Joe Siano said. “The truth is, it’s not easy to get into the system if you aren’t familiar with it. Those who don’t normally benefit from these resources don’t know where to find them.”
As a result, schools have become a crucial point of contact for families and aid. School counselors frequently serve as a family’s first liaison in arranging provisions through community resources, and some feeding programs operate out of the schools.
A prime example is the Backpack Program, made possible through a partnership with the Regional Food Bank, in which students who exhibit need are sent home with a package of non-perishable food items to ensure they do not go hungry when they aren’t at school.
“The food bank assembles the bags and selects the actual food items — there are nuts, fruit juices, peanut butter, beef jerky, and the bags themselves are a little different each week,” Jefferson Elementary Counselor Lisa Linke said.
“The food is selected with children in mind, but families likely share and we send home extra bags if we know a student has younger siblings at home.”
In addition to providing the food, school staff members like Jefferson’s Andrea Grady have perfected the system to be discreet and not single out students receiving aid from the rest of their peers.
“Each school has its own distribution system — here, we place the bags in a classroom cubby or wherever children keep personal supplies after school so it’s very discreet,” Grady said. “The kids know me as the ‘bag lady.’”
During the 2011/2012 school year, the Food Bank reported the backpack program, serving more than 13,500 chronically hungry children — that is students who consistently exhibit signs of hunger over several days or weeks — at 475 schools in 53 counties across central and western Oklahoma each week, with new schools being added each semester.
As of April, the Food Bank reported 476 Norman-area elementary school students receiving backpacks each week.
“The demand at Jefferson has increased over the years,” Linke said. “Originally, we had 15 students , and in recent years we’ve had as many as 60-65 students on the backpack program. Right now we’re serving about 25 students, and the numbers rise and fall with demand. I think as students’ families learn more about other food resources available in the community, the backpacks are no longer a necessity for them.”
At the middle and high school level, the Food Bank’s and district’s School Pantry Program provides a closely similar service to older students whose needs may be more specific. After-school programs through the Center for Children and Families and Loveworks Inc. provide additional snacks and meals with food supplied by the Food Bank.
“I’ve been in the program for eight years and I would say most families that need help are people who are proud, recently suffered a financial crisis like unemployment or medical difficulty and don’t want to ask for it but want to do what is best for their children,” Linke said.
Since children are less inhibited about voicing needs, school personnel rely heavily on powers of observation and making students feel comfortable being open.
“The concept of having a school climate that is conducive and caring for children and teens is crucial,” NPS Director of Counseling Sharon Heatly said. “Our staff is extremely attune to children and family needs.”
With no shortage of available resources and increasing demand for them, open communication between school personnel, students and families has never been more crucial.
“I’ve had many families say they didn’t know what they were going to do and that they had no idea a school could make arrangements for them to be taken care of,” Linke said. “Most of the families say they couldn’t have gotten through their rough time without this program.”