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It’s a typical day inside Westport Elementary School in Springfield. Teachers are working to engage their young students in an assortment of classroom activities, the front office buzzing with phone calls and greeting guests, and administrators touring the hallways to check on faculty and young minds.
But on Friday mornings, you’re bound to observe Steve Sischo and Nancy Richardson delivering sacks of nutritious items to classrooms throughout the school. These volunteers are providing severely at-risk children with a variety of foods for the weekend. Part of Ozarks Food Harvest’s Weekend Backpack Program.
“There’s Frosted Flakes, we have packages of tuna, we have cereal… lots of fruits and vegetables,” Sischo says.
Yes they’re plastic sacks, not backpacks. Nonetheless, inside the teacher’s lounge at Westport, which is converted into a mini food pantry on Fridays, dozens of care packages are prepared, says Sischo.
“We usually leave them outside the door so we don’t disrupt the classroom. But a lot of children know. And they’ll pass us in the hallway and they are very thankful, very happy. Some of them refer to them as treats. And others, they know what it is, and they’re very thankful to have them for the weekend.”
That’s because without that food, these children could go hungry. Children like five-year-old Landon, whose caretaker and grandmother, Karen Morton, says is more active when he eats healthy. Together, Morton has three grandchildren and her son to take look after; and three of those four are teenagers.
“Being that it’s children, they need the nutrition, the milk, and stuff like that – just the same as Landon does. It’s not easy, I just do the best I can,” Morton says.
A food stamp recipient, Morton says the end of the month is typically the hardest when it comes to having enough food. But that’s where the Backpack Program really helps.
“A lot of times I don’t always have still enough money at the end of the month to keep fruits and stuff like that that he really needs to keep him healthy. And milk because everybody… I can go through two or three of gallons of milk in a couple of days,” Morton chuckles. “So, this really helps and everything, especially at the end of the month whenever we don’t have that many food stamps left to buy extra things like fruits and milks and stuff like that.”
Westport is one of nearly 40 elementary schools throughout the Ozarks who assist children in need through the Backpack Program. They’ve been a member for five years, at first distributing weekend meals to 24 students. Now they serve 54. But even at that amount, there’s a waiting list, says the school’s counselor, Laura Lawson.
“I try to make sure that I do like large families and families of greatest need first. And then I have a waiting list. We have kind of a high move in and out rate here at Westport. So if a family moves or all of a sudden says we really don’t need that program anymore then I’ll add someone from my waiting list. But a lot of the same kids are on it all year long,” Lawson said.
And the longer kids are a part of the program, the better chance they have to consistently do well in school.
“You know if kids, if their basic needs aren’t met - if they come to school hungry, or they’re tired, or they’re… it’s the basic needs aren’t met – it’s very difficult to reach them academically because their minds in other places, so we want to focus and bring them here to the school by meeting those basic needs. And by doing that we can better serve our kids,” said Westport Principal Gary Tew.
Ozarks Food Harvest encourages companies and individuals to become a hunger hero by donating to the cause. OFH uses the money to purchase items at a discounted bulk rate. You can then find comfort in knowing that your dollar is helping feed the roughly one out of every four children in southwest Missouri who suffer from food scarcity.
“Have a great weekend,” as we so often say. And with the help of donors, school administrators, and volunteers like Steve Sischo and Nancy Richardson, 54 students of Westport Elementary School and more than 1,000 across the Ozarks are eating healthy this weekend as well.