When most kids love to skip classes, what would compel a child with a 102-degree fever to go to school?
Cathy Dugan, a school social worker, learned the answer one day:
Dugan keeps a sharp eye out for famished Wichita children. The boy she saw at school that day told them he toughed out his illness because he was hungry. He wanted the school breakfast, and wanted to take home the backpack of food the school gives to poor children on Fridays to make sure they have something to eat over a two-day weekend. There was no food in his house. He was famished.
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Dugan saw to it that he got one backpack for himself and another for his pre-school brother, whom he brought to school with him.
There are thousands of severely hungry children in Kansas — nearly 1,300 in Wichita, said Larry Gunkel of the Kansas Food Bank, which supplies the backpack food that Dugan and other school social workers send home with kids. The statewide program has grown tenfold since the Food Bank launched its Food 4 Kids backpack program eight years ago. He said the program grew fast, as he found more hungry children, and added more schools. It grew also after the economy went bad.
Gunkel says some people still find it hard to believe that hundreds of children in Wichita get little to nothing to eat at home over weekends. Many seem to survive mostly on what they eat at breakfasts and lunches served in Wichita schools, during the school year and in summer food programs.
But Gunkel, who runs the Food 4 Kids program, says educators have helped him identify 1,295 children like that in Wichita schools this year, and another 446 in other schools in Sedgwick County. He sees to it that they are sent home from school every Friday with a backpack filled with cereal, shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, raisins and other nonperishable, self-serve foods.
Eight years ago the Food Bank began sending backpacks to 632 children at 30 schools in 10 Kansas school districts, including Wichita’s. During the 2011-12 school year, they sent 917,730 backpacks with $891,943 worth of food to 6,374 students in 369 schools in 107 state school districts.
At Enterprise Elementary School, Dugan has identified 30 such chronically hungry children, about half of whom are homeless, some of whom tell stories about how they and their families get food.
“They talk about how the family goes ‘scrapping,’ meaning they go out hunting, either for scrap metal (to sell) or scraps of food,” Dugan said. “They talk about how they go dumpster diving, eating food from dumpsters.”
Educators and school social workers like Dugan have found thousands more in the 85 Kansas counties where the Food Bank distributes food to low-income people.
Gunkel and Food Bank director Brian Walker call them “food-insecure people” — who don’t know day to day where the next meal is coming from. Walker cites research by FeedingAmerica, the national organization that supplies food banks across the nation. The group says there are 162,000 food-insecure children in Kansas, more than one in five. Sedgwick County has 30,000 of those, the group estimates.
What complicates this even more, the group said, is that more than 35 percent of the food-insecure children in the state don’t meet the government qualifications to receive free or reduced-cost meals at school, and must rely on food pantries or other means to get enough to eat. That occurs when families work but don’t earn enough to cover basic costs of housing, utilities and health care. The food budget is often what gets cut.
Walker, who started Food 4 Kids in 2004, remembers how he turned to Gunkel early in that year and asked, “How will we feed them if we find 200?”
They fed 632 that first year.
After that, Gunkel found thousands more.
Walker’s own political views incline him to be skeptical of some government entitlement programs, and he and Gunkel say they work hard to ensure the backpack program won’t become a charity entitlement. But Walker has no patience with those who call the poor “takers.”
“These are children we feed with this program, and they really are famished at times,” Walker said. “Are we supposed to tell a first-grader to get a job?”
The best reason to feed those kids, besides that it keeps them from suffering, is that they can’t study if they go to school famished, Walker said.
“If they can’t concentrate on their work, they will become takers in adult life,” he said. “We’re trying to help prevent that.”
Many of the parents have jobs, and hate taking handouts, he said. He and Gunkel hear this from teachers, school principals and social workers who work with the hungry kids.
They say most of the parents’ jobs don’t pay enough, “and not one of the children we feed had any choice in becoming poor,” Walker said.
One of the more chilling things Walker and Gunkel say they have learned, as they keep finding hundreds more hungry children every year, is that many Kansas families refuse to ask for help.
Dugan said her school gives Food Bank backpacks to about 30 of the 500 students at Enterprise. They identified them as “food insecure” during the school year in the usual way: they saw them asking for seconds, or wolfing food, or asking for other students’ food. Or stealing food.
Sometimes the children just say they need food. But Dugan said even famished children will often deny their hunger because of personal or family pride. So Dugan coaches teachers about what signs to look for, because good teachers form bonds that help coax out the truth.
“Sometimes teachers can see things that I miss,” Dugan said.
One of the more noteworthy things she sees: “How the hungry kids really make sure they are here on Fridays to get the backpacks, no matter what.”