Beyond humanitarian reasons, school officials also want their poorest students fed and ready to learn on Monday mornings.
CINCINNATI — There’s an increasingly common ritual at suburban schools on Fridays.
It has nothing to do with football games or pep rallies. Instead, more and more kids are picking up bags of food to make sure they don’t go hungry over the weekend.
These programs are a response to the historical shift – a lingering consequence of the housing bubble – as America’s poverty moves from urban centers to its suburbs.
Programs like the one at at Kings Mills Elementary in Deerfield Township, Ohio, where volunteers stuff Friday backpacks with vacuum-packed meals and snacks, were largely non-existent before 2008. But the nation’s plunge into recession and sluggish economic recovery have seen them spread through even the most affluent suburbs.
In the Cincinnati area, suburban poverty increased by 83 percent from 2000 to 2011, according to a recent Brookings Institution study.
Moreover, the number of people living in poverty in suburbs in Southwest Ohio, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana in 2011 was 214,188, up from 116,975 in 2000, according to a Brookings’ analysis of U.S. Census data.
Christy Davis, a single mother of four students in Kings Schools, says she is “very grateful” for the weekend meals.
“It helps us a lot. And it may not seem like a lot to most people but to us it makes a big difference,” says Davis.
Beyond the obvious humanitarian motivation, school officials also have some healthy self-interest in mind. They want their poorest students fed and ready to learn on Monday mornings.
Still, the growing need for such programs “is disheartening,” says Lebanon Schools Superintendent Mark North, whose weekend food recipients have more than doubled in recent years.
“We put on students a lot of expectations on what they should be doing in schools to be successful, but we have a lot of children who do not have regular meals. And then these children are expected to hit the ground running right away, along with other children who have had the basics,” says North.
In contrast to the historical urban centers of poverty, where resources are accessible to the poor, suburban communities are often isolated from help, leaving many to lean on faith communities or schools for help, say local food pantry providers.
Neither Ohio nor Kentucky education officials track their numbers of school-based food programs, which differ widely in both scale and the donation arrangements they have with local food banks, pantries and churches.
But Kurt Reiber, Freestore Foodbank president and CEO, says “nearly 100,000 children living in the 20 counties served by the Freestore Foodbank aren’t always sure from where their next meal is coming.” These children live in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Southeast Indiana.
Typical is Kings Schools, where officials are seeing more students, primarily kindergarten through sixth grade, who need food assistance on the weekends.
In 2010, the first year of the Kings “Power Pack” food program, 154 students were given food each Friday. In 2011, participating families increased to 224; last school year it was up to 270.
The adjacent Lebanon Schools saw its weekend food users more than double from its program’s start in 2008, going from 150 students to now 320.
Upscale Mason Schools saw increases, too. Students at the Mason Early Childhood Center receiving weekend food packs jumped from 23 in 2011 to 47 in 2012.
In Northern Kentucky’s largely suburban school districts in Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties, students living off weekend rations went from 669 in 2010 to 789 in 2011 with a slight decrease to 738 in 2012 in part because two schools did not participate, according to officials of the Freestore Foodbank Power Pack Program.
Santa Banta, coordinator for the “Food For Thought” program in Kenton County, says the weekend food program served 50 students when it started in 2008. Today it feeds more than 185 children.
“The program is extremely important and we would serve more students if we had more money. It costs $5 per food bag each weekend,” says Banta.
Anonymity is key
School officials who try to feed students during the weekends go about it discreetly.
Backpacks or plastic bags are stuffed with meals toward the end of the week and are delivered to students’ lockers during classes, when the hallways are empty. Or they are dropped off at the front of closed classroom doors – without identifying students – so teachers can quietly hand them to the receiving student before they leave for home.
“They are not identified in any way,” says North. “Everything is volunteer and all the food comes through donations,” almost all from local food banks.
For those reasons, the growing practice is largely unknown to the public.
But to those who work to meet the swelling need, the trend also marks an increasingly stark dichotomy between the haves and have-nots in suburban classrooms, says Kevin Peyton, volunteer director of Joshua’s Place, which serves Kings Schools’ “Power Pack Program.”
“It may be one of the more unique pieces to suburban poverty… the mixture of socioeconomic classes,” says Peyton.
For example, he says, “South Lebanon Elementary serves families from TPC Rivers Bend with homes from $500,000 to $5 million along with families from the village of South Lebanon, where some families live in Section 8 housing and in trailers.”
“In some ways this is why I believe there is a quietness to the suburban poor. It adds a layer of guilt and hopelessness to those growing up in such a mixture of economic realities,” he says.
Kenton County’s Banta worries because the trend regionally and nationally is not abating.
“I can’t imagine it won’t continue as long as the economy is lackluster,” Banta said.
(Contributing: Mark Curnutte of the Enquirer)
Poverty in the suburbs
• According to a national study released in May by the Brookings Institution, suburban poverty has grown by 64 percent in the past decade.
• From 2000 to 2011, suburban poverty has expanded at more than twice the rate of the urban poor population.
• Poverty is defined in 2012 by the U.S. government for a household of four people with an income of $23,050.