Mark Jones, program manager at Post Falls School District, has a busy week ahead. He works at four schools, including New Vision Alternative high school. While a majority of students qualify for free lunch, they don’t always get to eat it.
“A high percentage of kids don’t turn in paperwork for reduced lunch – it’s a common problem nationwide,” he said. Reasons are varied – parents worry about disclosing income or other personal details on federal forms, and some feel stigma or pride about asking for charity. Other students in need are homeless, doubled-up (living with others) or transient, and may not have parents in the house at all, and may not have the manpower or information to fill out the forms.
Volunteers and know this is a reality, and wanted to help students eat at school without any paperwork barriers. Partnerships with Second Harvest, donations of fresh food and willing community members have transformed the district.
After an initial pilot phase, the Backpack program, now called Bite2Go, was implemented about eight years ago, and now has pantries at four middle and high schools in the district. At New Vision, three volunteers and Jones spearhead a program called Pantry Plus, which includes a continental breakfast served at school. Once a week, volunteers go all out and whip up pancakes, eggs, and other hot staples for kids in need. Anyone is welcome.
“The staff really embraced the concept of a continental breakfast,” he said. “What’s big for us is freshness – some kids say ‘this isn’t stuff we usually get at home.’”
Since New Vision has started on-site breakfast and implemented the pantries, Jones said at least 80 percent of the students have used one of the services. About 15 percent regularly use the food pantries. Bite2Go, currently only at the district’s elementary schools, regularly serves 100. Breakfast has had a noticeable impact, Jones said, because it builds a sense of community and belonging at school.
“If your school is your source of food as well, there’s a reason to be there,” he said.
When the district first implemented Bite2Go as a pilot program, Jones and other staff noticed immediate improvement in the students. Kids who received Bite2Go kits had fewer visits to the nurse, fewer discipline incidents and better attendance records. They also reported being able to reduce stress on their parents by bringing food home.
“By having this food, the kids felt they were making an impact on their family’s life,” he said.
School officials saw how successful Bite2Go was and decided to implement it at more Post Falls elementary schools. Today, partner organizations sponsor Bite2Go kits for more than 100 kids in the district.