Buddy Bags

Melissa Kossler Dutton
Volunteers pack buddy bags for distribution.

When Columbus City Schools teacher Will Davis saw a student peel the cheese off his lunchtime pizza and put it in his pocket, he asked the youngster what he was doing.

"He told me he was saving it so he could have something to eat once he got home," said Davis, who teaches second grade at Beatty Park Elementary.

Davis was so moved, he began buying food and serving a snack every afternoon. This year, he and the other teachers at the school are getting help meeting the children's food needs from the Family Mentor Foundation (FMF) in Worthington.

The nonprofit organization, which connects children and families in need with resources that can help, provides bags of food for children to take home on the weekends. The organization provides 250 "Buddy Bags" each week to children at four elementary schools in the Worthington City Schools and three Columbus City Schools, said Kari Vernon, FMF's executive director. The foundation started the Buddy Bag program with two schools in the fall of 2014. They currently have 1,200 kids on a waiting list.

The purpose of the bags is to provide children with foods that require little or no preparation so they can feed themselves over the weekend, she said. The bags contain packets of oatmeal, fruit cups, microwave meals and other kid-friendly items.

"The reality for a lot of our kids is that they're fending for themselves on the weekend," Vernon said. "The whole idea is individual sizes that a child can prepare at home and feed themselves."

The foundation uses monetary and food donations from companies and individuals to provide the food. Volunteers - including children and their parents - pack the bags, which the schools then distribute. The foundation relies on the schools to determine which children are eligible for the program. The schools develop their own system to distribute the bags so that other children do not know which students are receiving the bags, she said.

Vernon, a former middle-school teacher, said she realized while working in the schools that many children had a variety of unmet needs that hindered their ability to learn. She routinely saw kids who had physical, emotional and mental needs that weren't being addressed. She did what she could but often it fell short.

"As a teacher, I was left to my own resources and it was never enough," she said.

Hunger is real distraction to learning, she said. Hungry children have difficulty concentrating and other issues, she said.

"When a kid isn't getting adequate food, they may have stomachaches or headaches. They may act out," she said. "It becomes all that they think about. That becomes their priority. Until that unmet need is met that is where their focus goes."

It's hard for children to pay attention to what's happening in the classroom when they are worried about where their next meal is coming from, agreed Rob Messenheimer, principal of Worthington Estates Elementary School. He appreciates the Buddy Bag program because it not only addresses a basic need, it does it in a kid-friendly way.

"Sometimes kids don't have a voice or means to get the things they need. That's the great thing about this program, it brings the food to the kids," he said.

Providing food for children over the weekend is a huge service, added Jennifer Fralic, executive director of the Worthington Resource Pantry. Parents whose children receive free breakfasts and lunches at school may struggle to provide those meals on Saturday and Sunday, she said.

Fralic praised Vernon for finding a way to put the food in the hands of children without requiring their parents to visit a food bank.

Sending the bags home with the children means they "can get this vital, vital food over the weekend" without assistance from their parents, she said. "I am just thrilled. It's something I knew was a need."

The food pantry, which opened in 2008, has seen an increase in families - many with working parents - that need food assistance, Fralic said.

"We're also seeing an increase in brand-new families, who have never accessed our services before," she said. "We serve a lot of people who are under employed - the working poor."

In addition to providing backpacks, Vernon would like to see the organization offer after-school programs or summer camp. The programs would focus on giving children the tools to address some of their other unmet needs.

"I'm really trying to prepare kids to be autonomous, to have the tools to weather challenges of life's ups and downs," she said.