Fighting Childhood Hunger

Thursday, April 11, 2019
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For the second year, Fight Childhood Hunger Week, April 8 to 14, is in full swing in the Hardin School District with activities planned by seniors Erika Hernandez and Deidra Don’t Mix. These two advocates were selected to serve on the Youth Leadership Council through the Governor’s Office of Community Service.

Their focus in this role is to address childhood hunger and food insecurities or the lack of access, whether for a short or extended period. People living with food insecurity lack enough food for the entire household and/ or limited nutritionally adequate foods. Both students were drawn to this issue as chronic hunger is pervasive throughout the county.

This week raises awareness of food insecurities and highlights community food resources. In doing so, Hernandez and Don’t Mix are hosting Fight Childhood Hunger photo booths at select schools, Wear Orange Wednesday, as well as a $1 very berry smoothie fundraiser for Hardin High School and $1 hat day for the elementary schools this Friday.

Last year, this event raised $1,000 in the schools and another $600 from generous community donations like First Interstate Bank, Big Horn Valley Health Center, and student clubs. Contact your school for event details.

All proceeds from this event benefit the work being done to combat childhood hunger within the district, as Hardin School Nutrition provides weekend food backpacks and school pantries. The Hardin Backpack Program is an important and integral part of Hardin School District’s commitment to students in and out of the classroom.

“I wanted to at least make some kind of difference here, especially on the Reservation, especially the younger generation. I grew up being food insecure, so I wanted to help kids in the same position,” Don’t Mix said.

Big Horn County has one of the top rates of childhood food insecurity, at 25.8 percent, while the overall state food insecurity rate stands at nearly 18 percent, according to the Serve Montana state website. With nearly 1,200 children facing food insecurities at home, this week needs leaders like Hernandez and Don’t Mix.

The campaign is a statewide initiative through No Kid Hungry, which combats child hunger in Montana by connecting kids to the healthy food they need to succeed in the communities where they live.

The district-wide backpack program is operated through the Hardin School Nutrition Department, providing weekly shelf stable meals for students in the preK through 5th grade. Over the last two years, the backpack program has grown significantly to better address hunger in our community.

Last school year, 150 students were provided bags every week through the continued partnership between Hardin School Nutrition and the backpack coordinators.

Unlike most other backpack programs, the districtwide program is funded and operated by our school nutrition department. Each week the nutrition staff assembles 150 bags to distribute to schools and handed out by the designated backpack coordinator at each school. The backpack coordinators are student advocates, either counselors or nurses, trained in identifying signs of hunger, providing consistency, discretion, and care to students.

A teacher from Hardin Intermediate School noted, “Before we got the backpacks, I noticed that I had students who were hungry. I knew that their basic needs were not being met. My heart hurt understanding this and not being able to do anything about it.”

The backpack program empowers our entire school community to be able to address hunger by letting students know we hear them, we see them, and we care enough to do something about it.

The Backpack Program serves younger students, but middle and high school students are able to visit their school pantry. The infrastructure is different for older students, as they have more independence in deciding when they need food.

Youth Leaders, Hernandez and Don’t Mix are working to improve the accessibility of the high school pantry by cleaning out a storage room to house canned goods, frozen meals, and hygiene items for their peers. They are also looking towards the middle school pantry as an example. The food there is sourced from the prepared cafeteria food.

Since the food has been served in the cafeteria, it cannot be reheated and served more than twice, so any remaining food - from cheeseburgers, to mashed potatoes and turkey gravy - is packaged and frozen for students to take home as frequently as needed at the end of the school day. Under the Good Samaritan donation law, this food is donated to the school pantry, and is easily reheated for a filling meal.

Food is also being diverted from landfills, creating a larger understanding of health and community. Youth leadership is vital in fighting childhood hunger and promoting lasting change within our community. If you are in need of support, please contact your school for more information.

If you are interested in supporting youth leadership, the backpack program or school pantries, donations are always appreciated, from fruit cups, granola bars, macaroni and cheese, soup, hygiene items, or even your time.

The Big Horn County News is excited to announce a new weekly columnist Elle Ross. Ross, Executive Director at Helping Hands Food Bank, also serves at the Farm to School Coordinator for the Hardin School District.