As part of the USDA’s universal school feeding program, every student in the School District of Philadelphia is entitled to a free breakfast and a free lunch. But for some students, like those at James R. Lowell Elementary in Olney, that may not be enough.
“One of the concerns we have as a school is if children are hungry, they can’t concentrate on their learning,” said Lowell principal David Lugo.
“We do universal feeding. We do have breakfast in the morning. We serve, obviously, lunch, but what happens when they go home?”
Lowell is located in a community where 27 percent of residents are impoverished. So to help tackle hunger, Lowell partnered with Philabundance, the Philadelphia region's largest hunger relief organization, to host KidsBites, a food distribution program, every two weeks, that helps Lowell families fight food insecurity.
On the first and third Thursday of every month, Philabundance volunteers distribute fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh milk, frozen poultry, boxed cereal, canned goods, and juice to the school.
There is no income requirement. All families with at least one child enrolled at Lowell are welcome to participate. Signing up is as easy as showing up and registering.
Once registered, families receive about 25 pounds of food for up to two children. Those who have three or more children enrolled receive double the amount of food.
After four years of serving Lowell families, KidsBites is now woven into the culture of the school. Both families and faculty say the program has made a big difference.
“I have four [children],” said Teresa McAlister, an eight-year resident of Olney.
“I don’t get food stamps or anything, and it really hits my pockets a lot. Anything helps.”
McAlister has two grandchildren at Lowell and two more in other District schools. One of her grandchildren, Keshon Savoy, a 4th grader at Lowell, has severe food allergies, requiring a special diet, she said. Food shopping can be costly, McAlister said, when it’s added to the typical expenses of rent, utility bills, and gas, so the program is a “big help.”
“They give us a lot of food [that we] really don’t have at home,” said Keshon, 10. “And it is easier [than] going out to stores and buying a lot of other things. You get to save a lot more money that way.”
How it started
Currently, KidsBites operates through a partnership between Philabundance and Lowell, but it didn’t begin that way.
In September 2012, Lowell was selected by the retailer Target to have its library renovated as a part of the store’s school library makeover program. The program launched that year with the goal of renovating 25 school libraries across the country, offering new books, furniture, and iPads.
In addition to a new library, schools were given the opportunity to participate in Target’s Meals for Minds Initiative, a collaboration between the store chain and Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger relief organization, to offer assistance to students through a monthly food distribution.
Philabundance, a local affiliate of Feeding America, was tapped to run the program, which laid the foundation for KidsBites.
The Meals For Minds Initiative ended in 2015, but Target continued to provide financial support to Philabundance.
After seeing the participation from families in the monthly food distribution, Philabundance and Lowell decided to partner to continue the program, add another Thursday for food distribution, and call it KidsBites.
Also, with the new arrangement, Philabundance has more control over the food options, said Jessica Wyckoff, manager of community food programs at Philabundance.
“The parents that we serve seem to be really grateful for the variety,” she said. “The fresh produce, and now we’re doing dairy and meat, stuff that people might cut out of their grocery budget when times are tough.”
In addition to helping Lowell families fight hunger, the food distribution helps bring stability to the classroom.
Diane Gillen, a teacher at Lowell who acts as a liaison between KidsBites and the school, said that thanks to the program, students can focus their attention on their lessons, instead of an empty stomach.
“When you’re hungry, you can’t concentrate or focus, and they don’t feel good,” said Gillen, a 22-year teacher at Lowell. “They have stomachaches and headaches, and we have to send them to the nurse, which is time out of the class.”
Another benefit of the program is that it allows for another level of communication with families, said Gillen. It offers the chance to get to know the parents outside of discussing their child’s progress.
And the perks of KidsBites aren’t always reserved for Lowell families. Once they receive their initial allotment, families are free to go through the line a second time. Stephen Smith, a 40-year resident of Olney and grandfather of a 4th grader at Lowell, takes advantage of this, although he is not planning a feast for himself.
“I usually get a lot,” he said. “And I will take it, if they have any extra [and] if they’ll give it to me. And, in my apartment, I give it to some people who need it.”
Sometimes, he added, he sets up a box outside of his apartment and places the extras inside for his neighbors to take.
“It works very well. For the people in my building and for me,” Smith said.
In the beginning, offering food assistance to families was a challenge, because they didn’t want to admit that they needed help, said Orlando Vargas, a Lowell parent and Philabundance volunteer. But over time, he has seen those attitudes change.
It reminds people that they don’t have it all – at least not all of the time, Vargas said. “Everybody needs a little help in that pantry.”