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Food Bank official predicts record number of backpacks for kids

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, at 9:20 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, June 5, 2014, at 11:13 a.m.

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The Kansas Food Bank says it is now giving food for the weekend in backpacks to 6,352 schoolchildren every week in Wichita and the counties it serves in Kansas.

Of those, 1,223 backpacks went to children in 67 Wichita schools, said Larry Gunkel, the Food Bank representative who runs the Food 4 Kids program there. The program was created nine years ago when educators realized many children were not eating on weekends, surviving on food they get at breakfast and lunch at school.

By the end of last school year, the Food Bank was giving out food backpacks to 7,158 children a week in Wichita and the counties the Food Bank serves. That was a record, Gunkel said.

He projects that the Food Bank will be giving out food to 7,500 to 8,000 schoolchildren by the end of this school year. That would be a record, he said. “Mind-boggling, isn’t it?”

The Food Bank and other charities in Wichita say they have seen a steady increase in poverty and hunger in recent years at Kansas schools as some parts of the state economy continue to suffer from the effects of the 2008 recession. Numbers for these children in poverty are holding steady in Wichita, he said, but are rising outside Wichita, in part because the Food Bank continues to extend its reach, in part because as the Food Bank expands, “more awareness is created” and more cases are reported, he said.

Meanwhile, educators in Wichita continue to identify more homeless students. Cynthia Martinez, coordinator for the homeless in Wichita schools, said educators and social workers have found 1,524 homeless school-age children plus 108 Early Childhood homeless children, she said.

Some members of the Wichita-area community are stepping forward to help, Martinez said. A local Boy Scout gave her 1,600 socks he collected for homeless kids. A book drive sponsored by local people netted 200 books, which Martinez plans to hand out during the holiday season.

Martinez has run out of coats to hand out to those families who need them.

The Food Bank has run the backpack program since Food Bank director Brian Walker and his staff created it in 2004. They cooperate closely with coordinators in schools, both educators and social workers, Gunkel said.

“I’m proud of the coordinators, because they not only do a good job in identifying needs but work hard to make sure none of this becomes an entitlement program,” Gunkel said. “Every child we help is evaluated carefully in the schools for real need.”

Gunkel for years has asked coordinators and educators to send him notes with anecdotes about what they are seeing with these children. In his latest monthly public report, issued this week, Gunkel included two written comments, both from schools in Columbus. One, Gunkel said, was from the superintendent of schools, who wrote: “I have seen kids in tears not knowing what they might eat over the weekend. This program has changed lives each weekend. Kids appreciate the assistance they have received. It has helped a number of kids in USD 493.”

Another note was from an educator in an elementary school in Columbus, Gunkel said. “One of the hardest things for any educator is to send students home on a weekend not knowing if their basic needs will be met until we see them again. ... This goes a long ways in making sure students are ready for school on Mondays when they come back.”

The program ensures that students identified by school staff as chronically hungry can get a backpack of food on Fridays for the weekend. Teachers and school social workers have told the Food Bank for years that some of their students often don’t get anything to eat outside of school breakfasts and lunches.

Backpacks distributed in Wichita schools include 50 at Mueller Elementary, 50 at Spaght Elementary, 90 at Colvin Elementary, 60 at Rae Woodman Elementary and 53 at Cloud Elementary, Gunkel said.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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