While Christmas songs are encouraging us to feel goodwill toward each other, there is something we can do that is far more tangible to help thousands of kids this holiday season, and beyond.
As kids get ready for the winter break, thousands of Clark County School District students will be going home to an empty pantry. “We have a high percentage of food insecurity [in Las Vegas],” says Dorian Stonebarger, program manager at Three Square food bank. “We’ve seen increases. When our economy fell, the face of hunger changed.”
According to the Clark County School District, 210,000 kids—more than half of the nation’s fifth-largest school district’s students—qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch. To qualify for the federally funded free and reduced-cost lunch program, a family’s income must be below 130 percent of the poverty line. Fifty-one local schools have 90 percent of students participating in the program, CCSD spokeswoman Michelle Booth says.
Studies show that students who miss breakfast have lower memory recall, lower test scores and more frequent tardiness and absences, according to No Kid Hungry, a campaign sponsored by nonprofit Share Our Strength. Earlier this year, the Nevada Legislature passed Senate Bill 503, which requires schools with more than 70 percent free or reduced-cost lunch participation to offer a breakfast program for students. In September, Three Square launched Powered By Breakfast, funded in part by No Kid Hungry, which serves more than 71,000 kids.
“We give the option to kids if they want to come [to breakfast],” says Deborah Palermo, principal of Ollie Detwiler Elementary School, one of the 13 schools with 90 percent participation in the lunch program. “We have kids [for whom] these are their only meals in a day.”
Another program is Three Square’s donor-funded Backpacks for Kids, which reached more than 190,000 students in 2014. Filled with two days’ worth of shelf-stable, no-cook foods such as fruit cups, granola bars and cereal, the backpacks are intended to keep kids fed during weekends away from school-meal programs. “We have noticed a greater need with that program,” Stonebarger says.
Palermo says the Community in Schools of Nevada program, part of a nationwide network that works with at-risk communities in 25 states and the District of Columbia, makes a big difference for the families of her students. The program offers a variety of programs to help parents, including providing food. “They can actually cook meals at home, so they’re not starving,” she says.
While there are many programs to help kids during school, breaks can be particularly dire for students at schools with a high rate of hunger insecurity. Palermo says many at-risk schools rely on donations from the community and their own staff to help struggling families.
And there’s a lot that people can do to help.
Three Square also distributes bulk-food donations to hunger charities across the Valley, has a matching funds donation campaign through December. Normally, Three Square’s buying power turns $1 into three meals, but this month the matching campaign will turn that same dollar into six meals. Donations are accepted online (ThreeSquare.org) or at 702-644-3663.
Folks can donate to schools as well. Booth says that schools take donations of money, gift cards or food, but have an increased need for other items, too, including clothing, furniture, dishes and even appliances. For more information on how to donate to the CCSD programs, call 702-799-7435. You can also help students through the Title I Hope Homeless Outreach Program at 702-855-6682.