At the food bank, a changing mission

Gocio Elementary School third-graders Princess Houston, center, and Janellise Ridgway, right, tell school counselor Tracey Bailey what their favorite foods are in the Backpack Kids program. Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner

Gocio Elementary School third-graders Princess Houston, center, and Janellise Ridgway, right, tell school counselor Tracey Bailey what their favorite foods are in the Backpack Kids program. Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner

Following nationwide trend, All Faiths Food Bank renews focus on health, nutrition

SARASOTA – Tracey Bailey’s kids know the drill. They come in on Friday mornings and grab their “backpacks” from the blue bin before the bell rings. Inside the plastic bags, an array of snacks they can take home for the weekend. 

Bailey, a counselor at Gocio Elementary, has been managing All Faiths Food Bank’s BackPack Kids program at the school since 2008.

The program, which served more than 33 schools in Sarasota and Desoto counties last year, was started around the time of the recession, when schools began noticing many more families were struggling.

School offered some respite. During the week, kids have access to free breakfast, and then there’s lunch, which many children can also receive for free.

But then comes the weekend.

“The cost of food can be very expensive, especially healthy food, so this helps them have a snack they otherwise wouldn't have access to when they’re not at school,” Bailey said.

Many families don’t live in areas with easy access to fresh, healthy food, Bailey added, and they have to resort to nearby convenience stores or bodegas.

The BackPack program got a makeover last year. Snacks are now more health-centric. The new bags contain sunflower seeds, fruit cups, whole grain cereal, and tuna or chicken salad. Before, the bags were filled with more canned non-perishables and microwave meals.

Examples of the old foods offered in the Backpack Kids program. Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner

Examples of the old foods offered in the Backpack Kids program. Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner

The entire food bank industry is starting to make a shift toward healthier choices, said All Faiths CEO Sandra Frank. Food banks are moving away from just wanting to fill stomachs, to focusing on nutrition. 

Examples of the new for nutritious foods offered in the Backpack Kids program. Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner  

Examples of the new for nutritious foods offered in the Backpack Kids program. Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner  

When Frank came on four years ago, she estimates that fresh produce made up only about five percent of the distributed foods. Now she says about 30 percent of the food All Faiths distributes is fresh produce. Other initiatives include the Sprout Mobile Market, a food truck that gives out free fruits and vegetables in areas with few supermarket options.

Meal gap

Hunger is a health issue, Frank said, but also, a school issue.

“There’s an established, proven connection between nutrition and learning,” Frank said. “Compelling, long-term research has proven that time and time again.

“The light went on for food banks. They’re part of the problem.”

More than half the children living in Sarasota County are eligible for free or reduced lunch, meaning their household income dips below the poverty threshold. In Desoto county, nearly all students are eligible.

In Sarasota, 25 percent of children were classified as food-insecure according to 2013 data collected by All Faiths. About a third of those children were likely not eligible for nutrition assistance programs because their families make too much money to qualify.

But those families nevertheless struggle, too, Bailey said.

“Sometimes you don’t qualify because your income is too high but that doesn’t mean you’re not strapped for cash,” Bailey said.

The Backpack Kids program does not look at income. Any family that is struggling is welcome to apply. Some families apply when they’re going through a rough patch, said Bailey.

An added benefit of the program is that it helps target the younger kids – little siblings and cousins – who may be falling through the cracks because they’re not yet in school. In a survey of children who participate in the program, more than half said they shared the snacks with little brothers and sisters. Frank calls those the “invisible” kids. Targeting hunger during early childhood is critical, she said, because that’s when children are developing at their fastest.

The surveys helped drive the menu changes, too. Kids are regularly asked what they think of the foods and what they recommend.

“It’s important that the snacks be healthy, but also kid-friendly and portable,” Bailey said. 

After all, it’s only nutrition if they eat it.