It may be hard to believe that hunger and poverty exist in Collin County, but the reality is that 20 percent of the county’s children are food insecure. More than 7,000 are Plano ISD elementary students.
To combat hunger, Mayor Harry LaRosiliere has partnered with the North Texas Food Bank (NTFB) to provide Plano children in need with the nutritious foods necessary for healthy, successful futures with its Food 4 Kids Plano program.
“In Plano we call ourselves the ‘City of Excellence,’ and it’s my privilege to be the mayor, but with all the good things that are happening, we can’t call ourselves the ‘City of Excellence’ when 30 percent of our kids in our school district in elementary school are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and 1,800 of them have no meal over the weekend,” LaRosiliere said at Thursday’s Food 4 Kids kickoff event at Seven Loaves Food Pantry and Community Center, a NTFB partner agency. “Through the Food 4 Kids Plano program we’re going to provide them a backpack with shelf-stable food [each weekend]. In addition to that, we’re going to provide them a turkey and a box to have a Thanksgiving meal as well.”
As part of a three-year effort, LaRosiliere reached out to corporations, civic organizations, faith-based groups and community members to secure funding for the program. Eligible children will receive unmarked backpacks filled with nutritious snacks every Friday to take to ensure they have food over the weekend.
“I have hundreds of kids come through my doors every day and rush the breakfast line,” said Karen Noble, principal at Mendenhall Elementary. “We have plenty for all, but they’re hungry. Many of our students are there for breakfast and lunch, and they thrive on those meals … but our kids, in leaving just don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“It’s helpful for the kids to see the love that comes in the bag as much as to see the food. It means someone cares. They’re not in control of their circumstances, so it’s nice for them to realize other people are caring enough to help them through it … they’re so appreciative and nobody ever takes it for granted.”
This past school year, only 32 of Plano ISD’s 50 early childhood and elementary schools participated in the NTFB’s Food 4 Kids backpack distributions. Beginning last month, the program was expanded to all 50 schools to ensure that all 1,800 eligible children will receive weekly backpacks.
“Many of these kids are dealing with chronic hunger, the kind that lingers and keeps you from focusing on your schoolwork, on your play or just getting about your day,” said Jan Pruitt, NTFB president and CEO. “Imagine being a young child and feeling more eager to go to school on Monday because of the food you’ll receive at breakfast or lunch. That’s why these backpacks and the food inside are so important - they are a lifeline for children that live in Plano.
“What we found is kindergarteners who experience even minimal food insecurity at home learn less than their peers during that formative year … undernourished elementary students have lower math scores and are more likely to repeat a grade. As they enter adolescence, food insecure children are twice as likely to be suspended from school.”
LaRosiliere said that $220 will feed a child for a whole year with the backpack program; $100 will feed five families on Thanksgiving.
“I know Plano is a caring community,” he said. “[Our sponsors and partners] have accepted the challenge to raise $1 million over the next three years to feed our kids, and we have fully funded year one. This is really not about feeding a child for a weekend. We’re committed to giving them the opportunity to get an education. I believe that great things happen when a community comes together for a common cause.”
As an example of the community coming together to fight hunger, LaRosiliere said Food 4 Kids Plano just wrapped up a successful peanut butter drive during September, in which John Paul II High School collected more than 1,000 jars of peanut butter in five days.
“The bottom line is very simple and very clear - our children need your help … to not only be healthy students, but successful students,” Noble said. “I am committed to these students being high school and college graduates, and without the help of NTFB, many of them would have difficulty on the weekend being able to sustain themselves with enough food. This does meet that need.”
To help with the cause, Baylor Regional Medical Center Plano came to the table – literally - to help the children of Plano.
“We are so honored to be a part of this,” said Jerri Garison, president of Baylor Health Care System east region and Baylor Plano. “I am the mother of four children who all went to Mendenhall Elementary, and as a health care system, part of our job is to help with the wellness of our community. These children cannot be successful without food.”
The public is invited to volunteer at the food bank on Oct. 18 and 25 to help pack the backpacks for the upcoming year. Visit ntfb.org/volunteer to sign up.